Director Mira Nair Discusses Her New Disney Movie, Queen of Katwe

What better way to learn about Disney’s new inspirational movie, Queen of Katwe, than by interviewing Director Mira Nair! If you use the word “powerhouse,” picture Mira. Decisive, creative, innovative, loving and dedicated — these are just a few of the words that could be applied to her, and I could tell you this within the first five minutes of our round table.

director mira nair

Mira’s involvement with Queen of Katwe came about in a native, organic way. As a 27-year resident of Kambala, she fell in love with someone after moving there, then had a son and opened up Maisha, a film school. The film school has a good motto, one we need to all remember.

“If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”

Strong words, right? As a writer by day and a blogger the rest of the time, this is absolute truth. My life’s been a roller coaster like everyone else’s. I lost a husband at 20 to an accident. Made a bad choice on the next guy and ended up divorced and running away from an abuser. These are things I wouldn’t normally share, but it’s the life that has shaped me into who I am today, a happily married mom of four with a husband who spoils me like crazy. I have stories that I haven’t told, and while I don’t know if I will share them beyond the above vague references, Mira’s words ring true. What if sharing our stories — our history, our past, our feelings and our dreams — could change the future?

director mira nair(Above photos both courtesy of Carol Jones at

Telling the stories in Queen of Katwe was life changing. Phiona’s life before and after her involvement in chess and the book about it are almost two different worlds. Thanks to Mira and her crew, we’re all privy to that transition and we’re all better for it.

Maisha, Mira’s film school, was created in part to help make Africa’s joy and life be seen beyond the negative that was otherwise so often on the screen. Africa has beauty and life that’s not yet been depicted, and Queen of Katwe helps change that. The fact that Mira lived about 15 minutes from Phiona Mutesi, the lead figure in the movie, speaks to the fact that positive news doesn’t always spread like negative. She heard about Phiona via a colleague who shared an ESPN article about a young woman traveling to Russia and the Olympics for chess. Mira was completely struck by the story and went to meet Phiona before going any further.

Not only did Mira meet Phiona, but she got to know her, Robert Katende (Phiona’s mentor, a missionary who ran a youth outreach program) and Phiona’s mom, Harriet. Harriet took Mira around, showing her the places she’d lived and survived with her children. Harriet’s strength and courage stood out, along with the love for her children. Mira shared a funny story about how she invited Harriet to her own home, where Harriet saw her garden. Mira’s quite the gardener and she has an actual nursery in her home. Harriet was impressed by this, and Mira told her that she’d love to plant her garden for her. Harriet’s response was “It is because I have seen your garden, I will allow you to plant mine.” And Mira did get that chance.

In fact, Mira went to Harriet’s garden with a truck bed full of 80 plants, which she planted all in one day. Harriet speaks only Uganda, but she was given a smartphone, and each time a flower blooms, she takes a photo of it and sends it to Mira. <Goosebumps, this type of story is truly a privilege to hear.>

One of the challenges in the creation of Queen of Katwe was portraying Kampala properly, how the people of Kampala embrace life fully and don’t complain about what they don’t have. Phiona was part of that. You cannot do it alone. You have the fire in you, but it takes a village. It takes a mother to shepherd you. Yet Phiona did have to prove to her mother that chess was not a gambling game, and that it is indeed possible to have dreams that you can achieve. This makes the story broader, and Phiona is proof that with the right teacher, community and help, dreams do come to life.

I know how to play chess, but I’m not good at it. The logic and the long-term strategy — these things aren’t my forte. I wanted to learn more after watching this movie though, and Mira had the best teacher: Phiona. She wanted to just go about moving the pieces, and Phiona had to tell Mira “You must consider the other side of the board.” As was mentioned in the round table, what a metaphor for life, right?

director mira nair

The story of the snap, which you won’t know until you see the movie, is short and sweet: it’s a real thing prior to the movie and is like a way of saying “checkmate” or an exclamation point. Like a mic drop. Snap.

There is so much more I could share with you. This interview was packed full of information that had us all rapt, and I could write for a long time. I’ll end it with this though: Director Mira Nair was the best choice for Queen of Katwe. Her love for Uganda, her community and her adopted culture shines through every scene.

Go see it. (And read my review here.)

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