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Interview: Lupita Nyong’o on Queen of Katwe’s Hopeful Message and the Backlash to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech

Plus, a little bit on Black Panther.

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Queen of Katwe is the uplifting true story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi who lives with her family in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. Selling corn on the streets, her destiny changes when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former soccer player turned missionary who teaches the local kids to play chess. Phiona quickly picks up the game and she quickly advances through local tournaments. Through these winnings, she has the opportunity to lift her family out of poverty.

I had the chance to speak with Lupita Nyong’o, who plays her mother Harriet in the film. We discussed the movie’s powerful message of not letting one’s current circumstances determine their future, as well as the backlash from Meryl Streep’s much talked about Golden Globes speech. Plus, I even asked her about what it’s like to work on Black Panther.


How important for you is it to have Phiona’s story told, and do you think it helps curve some of the stereotypes that people might have of Ugandans?

Lupita Nyong’o: I think Phiona’s story is powerful because it is true and it is uplifting. It’s about a girl who comes from not very much who makes a lot of herself by pursuing an unlikely dream. It’s a universal story. It’s a lesson that we ought to learn again and again, that where you’re from is not necessarily where you belong…and that you belong where you believe you belong. Her story exemplifies that and I think it’s in telling stories like this that you see more than just one perspective of a people, of a place. We know how dangerous it is to have only one side of a narrative told and so Queen of Katwe offers a counter to any popular narrative of a war-torn Uganda. I don’t know what stereotypes are going on about Uganda but I just really appreciate the fact that this offers an uplifting side to the narrative, and really for Africans altogether.

TMS: Meryl Steep’s Oscars speech caused quite a stir, with some saying actors shouldn’t have opinions on politics. Do you agree?

LN: That is to suggest that actors aren’t citizens of a nation. We as actors, we are modern day storytellers and story is a very powerful way in which we learn what is important to a generation. Stories outlive fact and so the content of our story ought to reflect the things that we care about, the things that were on our minds…because they will outlive us, too.

TMS: How does it feel to be part of a production that is so inherently black both on screen and behind the scenes?

LN: It feels like home (laughs). I grew up in a world that looks like this Black Panther set so it feels like home. (Note: She’s also aware of #BlackPantherSoLit.)

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TMS: What’s the most important thing that you want people to take away from Queen of Katwe?

LN: First of all, I think this film was made with a lot of love and joy, and I hope that people can feel it when they watch it…that despite the fact that Phiona comes from a lot of hardship, she and the people in her life rise above it…that poverty is not a quality that determines the character of a person. Phiona’s story shows us that. So I hope that it is a joyful experience to go through, but I also hope that it warms people’s hearts…that it reminds people that a lot more is possible than people may think. And, ultimately, in order for a genius to achieve their goals, it takes a village. It takes a mentor, it takes a community to support that genius. And so I hope that this is a film that reminds us of the importance of having community in order to achieve big things.


Queen of Katwe is out on Blu-ray and Digital HD on January 31. Black Panther heads to theaters on February 16, 2018.

(image via screencap)

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