Disney crowns ‘Queen of Katwe,’ but Chapel Hill writer found story

Sometimes an article makes all the difference.

“The Queen of Katwe” is a book by UNC lecturer Tim Crothers, following a Ugandan slum girl’s rise from a no-hope future to international chess combat.

“Queen of Katwe” is a movie that lands at theaters nationwide Sept. 30, after a limited release the week before. Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo (“Selma”) plays Robert Katende, the chess teacher who saw potential in 9-year-old Phiona Mutesi. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) plays her mother, Harriet; Madina Nalwanga makes her debut as Phiona.

The film will be Walt Disney Pictures’ contender for a best film Oscar this year. Mira Nair, the only respected director with a home in Uganda, re-teams with writer William Wheeler; they did “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” 2013 winner of the Munich Film Festival.

Right now, Crothers waits like the rest of us to see how the project turned out.

“I had an initial conversation with Mira Nair a couple of years ago, before they started shooting,” he says. “I heard about the shoots from Robert Katende, who was on the set as a consultant throughout. They shot much of it in Katwe, and ... several kids in the movie are from Robert’s chess project. He was adamant about that.

“Robert told me the screenplay is very reflective of the book; he made sure there were no great liberties taken. Clearly, they have expanded the role of Harriet. She was always there when Phiona wasn’t at a chess project, and she had a huge role in forming who Phiona would ultimately become.”

Crothers also waits to see how that story will turn out. Phiona Mutesi (pronounced Mu-TESS) is perhaps 20 now – no one recorded her exact birthdate – and about to finish secondary school. She thinks of becoming a pediatrician, despite fame as a chess player that has made her one of Uganda’s national heroes.

A meeting that changed lives

Neither she nor he might be where they are now if their paths hadn’t crossed six years ago. There, too, an article made all the difference: In 2011, Crothers profiled her for ESPN The Magazine after learning about Phiona through Sports Outreach, a Lynchburg, Va.-based ministry.

“At the time, I had heard of (Ugandan dictator) Idi Amin and watched the movie ‘Raid on Entebbe’ years ago,” he says. “But I had never been to Africa and had no understanding of how things worked there, until I stepped off the plane in Kampala and was engulfed by it.

“I had been assured by Sports Outreach that Robert Katende (pronounced Ka-TEN-day) is so well known and respected that, as long as I was on his hip, I would be very safe. We call him ‘The Fixer,’ and he can make anything happen at any time anywhere. As soon as I met him the first time, I knew I was in as good hands as I could have been.”

Crothers quickly realized the book was “the story of three things: Robert, Phiona and Katwe (pronounced Cot-WAY) itself. She had spent her entire life in Katwe; she’d get up at the crack of dawn, walk forever to fill a jerrycan with fresh water, do the wash, do whatever was needed around the house, go to the market with her mother to sell maize and hope she made enough to eat a meal. That was it until she was 9 and had a new life that included school, thankfully.

“Katende’s story became a big piece of the book. He (had) a more difficult upbringing than Phiona. Without him, there would be no Phiona. Initially, you had to know him to know her; I had to gain his trust in order to gain her trust.”

We learn about Phiona more through other people than through her words in his account. Was that because of a language barrier? Shyness?

“She would have liked to do the interviews in English, but I realized she would not have been able to do that in detail, so (Robert translated). She was initially monosyllabic. Women in Uganda are not encouraged to share thoughts and feelings, and that’s what I asked her to do. Little by little, she did.”

A strange pair of pals

They must have made an odd couple, this teenaged chess phenom from a vast slum and the UNC grad (English major, class of ’86) who’d been a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.

He’d written biographies of two UNC sports figures, basketball coach Roy Williams (“Hard Work’) and women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance (“The Man Watching”). But unlike many sports writers, he didn’t have to be convinced that chess is a sport.

“I define sport as any competition, even if it’s not athletically inclined. Chess is one of the purest sports, because it’s not judged. Watching Olympic gymnastics, I thought, ‘Is this a sport? It’s a bunch of people deciding in the stands who’s the best dancer on the mat.’ Football, baseball, basketball are all shaped by decisions made by officials. The beauty of chess is that you can never say, ‘If I’d gotten a better call from the referee, I’d have won.’

“You aren’t burning a lot of calories, but great chess players will tell you that in a four-hour match, there is endurance involved. Your brain will shut down, if you’re not in good mental and physical shape.”

His narrative followed Phiona up the ranks of Uganda’s female players to Khanty-Mansiysk in remote central Russia, where she represented the women’s team in the 2010 Chess Olympiad. She has since played at the 2012 Olympiad in Istanbul, attaining the status of Woman Candidate Master – nobody else in Uganda has done that – and, if she has the time, skill and inclination, can eventually climb the ladder toward Grandmaster.

The girl grows up

After the book came out, the 2013 Women of the World Summit in New York gave her $25,000 to promote chess and education among impoverished girls in Uganda. She has held Uganda’s first girls-only chess clinic – 400 showed up for the two-day event – and been recognized as her nation’s most influential athlete during the Queen’s Baton Relay at the Commonwealth Games.

For Crothers, she has grown from “a girl who never knew there were people living differently than they did in Katwe into a confident, worldly young woman.” Phiona and her family benefited by both book and movie contracts and now live in a safe, newly constructed home outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital city.

She can still clean his clock at chess, of course, as she did in Russia. To get her to relax in the interviews, he challenged her to a game: “She let me take her queen, and I was so proud of myself: ‘I have taken the queen from the Queen of Katwe!’ Three minutes later, the game was over, and I realized that was all part of her plan.”

Her influence even spread to his adopted home town. On a visit to see him in Chapel Hill four years ago, she started a chess club at Glenwood Elementary School.

“Now my 12-year-old son, Atticus, beats me more than I beat him,” says Crothers. “Sawyer, my 9-year-old daughter, never played chess before that; now she’s the third-grade champion and a big challenge for me.

“Before Phiona, two people in Atticus’ third-grade class knew chess. Now we’re teaching 250 kids to play. That’s the inspiration she brings to people around the world.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232