A Different African Narrative: actor David Oyelowo on ‘Queen of Katwe’

by Andrew Parker

Actor David Oyelowo has a great speaking voice, and he knows it. After a journalist remarks upon his smooth, British accented tone, he jokes that if he ever needs help going to sleep he could listen to the playback of the interview we were about to conduct and listen to “the dulcet tones” of his own voice because while watching and performing in his own films he hears it so rarely.

It’s not an arrogant moment, but a humble and good natured one that helps to underline just how great of a performer he is. He goes on to kid that few people have actually heard his true accent because he often plays roles where he changes his voice to reflect whatever nationality or background he’s attempting. Some people are taken aback when they meet him. He sounds nothing like Martin Luther King Jr. (who he famously portrayed in Selma), the slick, refined District Attorney from A Most Violent Year, or any number of the parts where he has portrayed a gentleman from the southern United States. In person, like most great actors, he sounds and acts nothing like any of the characters he has ever portrayed.

He also sounds and looks nothing like Robert Katende, the real life Ugandan chess coach that he portrays in director Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, which opens exclusively in Toronto this weekend before expanding across the country next weekend. A former soccer player who left the sport behind following a career ending injury, a missionary, and a family man, Katende teaches chess to a group of inner city children from the slums of Katwe in the city of Kampala that he dubs The Pioneers. He notices his star pupil, nine year old Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), has the skill to potentially become a grand master one day, but Katende needs to convince her hard working single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) that chess isn’t a waste of time.

Oyelowo brings his almost preternatural talent for bringing characters to life with great amounts of depth, subtlety, and dignity to Nair’s film, which portrays a vastly different depiction of chess and class struggle in Africa than most Western audiences are exposed to in mainstream cinema. It was the special touch that Ugandan local Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) brought to Queen of Katwe that made Oyelowo so interested in the Disney produced project. Neither of them wanted to produce another inspirational tale of rising above poverty and class, but something a lot more true to the culture being depicted.

We caught up with David Oyelowo during a recent promotional stop for the film in Toronto just a few days after its world premiere at TIFF to talk about what sets the character of Robert Katende apart from more clichéd mentor roles in films, the differences in his approaches to fictional and nonfictional characters, watching realistic depictions of everyday African life on screen, and much more.

Your character in this film is particularly fascinating because when you usually see a coach or mentor portrayed on film, it’s usually just a wise sage or some tortured former professional, but the character of Robert is incredibly complex both inside of his work with these kids and away from it. Was that something that attracted you to the role?

David Oyelowo: I’m so relieved that you think that because when I first read the script and after the first time I met Robert, one of the things that terrified me is how good of a person he is; how almost saintly he is. By and large, that doesn’t make for an interesting character. As an actor, you always want someone with rough edges, or someone with a bit of a dark past, or something where there’s a little bit that’s unknown about them. Really, with Robert what I found was what you see is what you get in terms of just what a wonderful human being he is. That was something that was very much on my mind: how to make that kind of a character complex.

What struck me was that once Mira and me started talking about the role and once I got to Uganda and saw Robert’s actual life was that, yes, he was a wonderful guy, but that the complexity of him comes from the choices that he has had to make in his life; the sacrificial choices. He was a fantastic soccer player, but then he couldn’t play anymore because of an injury, which meant he couldn’t do that anymore. He’s a very bright guy who could have gone on to become an engineer, but he chose not to do that in order to give these children what he didn’t have because he was an orphan himself and he remembered what that was like. He grew up in a time of political unrest in Uganda. Beneath the tip of the iceberg there’s all this pain and struggle. That’s where this goodness comes from. I made the choice to make all of that stay under the surface and emerge every now and again, largely in those moments where he’s away from his own kids because he has to be a father figure to these children. Some of my favourite scenes in the film are moments when Robert is with his wife, for instance, or when I’m a little bit at sea regarding choices I have made for the children. Thankfully, I also had a great director in Mira Nair, who’s very, very good with emotional arcs, and she helped me navigate that.

What was it like watching Robert’s reaction to the film?

David Oyelowo: Oh, my lord, it’s so nerve wracking. (laughs) When you play a true life character, normally you’re playing someone who’s long gone, which is a relief to the actor. But the first time I saw the film with Robert was here at the premiere, and thankfully he was very teary afterwards and was really appreciative and supportive of my portrayal, which was a relief. But the thing that he said struck him the most was a scene where I talk about how his mother passed away and the fact that he didn’t know his mother for more than a short time and then she was gone again, he said that was pretty unbearable for him to watch because he still has pain linked to the loss of his mother. He thanked me for that, and that’s all I’ll ever need in my way for a seal of approval.

You’ve played Robert Katende, Martin Luther King Jr., and also at the festival this year you played the king of Botswana in A United Kingdom. Is there more of a responsibility for you personally when you have to play these real life figures?

David Oyelowo: I think you feel more responsibility to the families of the people or the actual people if they’re still alive, as is the case with Robert. There’s more of an onus on getting the historical side of things right. When you’re playing a fictional character, you can be more creative and rely more on your own imagination.

It’s worth saying, though, that I don’t go out of my way to play true life characters. I just gravitate towards the things that most compel and interest me. It’s just been this weird thing where I’ve just had this run of real life characters. Maybe those are just the most complex stories that have come my way.

The great thing about portraying Robert was that he was there with us every day. He was the chess consultant on the film, so anything that I felt was a bump in the script that didn’t feel real to me having met him, I could just walk behind the camera and say, “Hey, would you say this?” It’s already very true to who he is. I also had the privilege because some of the kids in the cast are some of Robert’s actual Pioneers, as he calls them, and I could watch them interact between takes. Literally all of my research was hovering around me, so the man I saw was the man I was trying to be in the film.

When you come to a festival with more than one film like you did this year with Queen of Katwe and A United Kingdom, how does it make you feel having to promote more than one in such a small amount of time? And how does it feel since both films show a different side of the African class divide than is usually depicted in mainstream films?

David Oyelowo: That’s a good question. I feel a bit greedy. (laughs) But that is a good question. For something like A United Kingdom, I’m also involved on the production side of that one, and we have been working on that film for almost six years, so there’s a very specific attachment to that film. But with Queen of Katwe, this is a film that I have been longing to SEE as an audience member for years now.

The last time I was in Uganda was for a film called The Last King of Scotland, a very different kind of film, and a brilliant one in my opinion. Forest Whitaker gives a brilliant performance in that movie, but it’s about a Ugandan dictator, and by and large that’s more of what we’ve seen coming out of Africa in terms of stories and films being made that cross over into the Western consciousness. And that has an effect on people’s perception of the people of Africa and on the people originally from Africa.

So having lived there for seven years and being of Nigerian parentage, I know that, yes, dictators, child soldiers, corruption, poverty, and all that are a part of African life, but they’re by no means the entirety of it. Stories like Queen of Katwe happen every day. People who are self-possessed enough to help their own communities from within as opposed to being constantly helped from without, which is what you so often see in these kinds of movies. That’s why I have such a particular love for this film. To me, it’s a real balance to these other kinds of movies.

One thing that you just mentioned that I think this film does well is to illustrate just how similar the gaps between the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy are to the rest of the world. The culture might be different, but the inequality on display remains the same, and I think that’s something that people in the West might take for granted. So what was it like being able to portray that side of Queen of Katwe?

David Oyelowo:  That’s what makes Queen of Katwe feel and seem radical to some, in a sense, but that’s really the normality. The truth of the matter is that us human beings on this planet are more alike than we are different. Those kind of social class systems exist everywhere. They exist here. They exist in the U.K. They exist in America. That’s something that I love about the film. There is prejudice within Uganda itself on the basis of socioeconomic barriers, and there’s gender inequality. There are cultural biases that mean a girl should not play chess or achieve certain things. It’s a patriarchal society, as many of them in the world so often are. It’s just the truth of that place, and it feels radical because, again, we haven’t really seen how similar Africa can be to the rest of the world. You rarely get the balanced view.

This to me is why we really need to look at who gets to tell these stories. I think the reason why the poverty feels authentic and is authentic to what I have certainly seen while being in Uganda both this time and the last time I was there is because the film has been made from within as opposed to without. Mira has lived there for 27 years, so of course for her, the authenticity and the reality will comes with the respect that should be paid. That’s something that would be high up on her agenda. If you were someone from without – and that’s by no means a way to discredit anyone who has made a film in Africa who isn’t from there – inevitably your own cultural bias and your own perception of the place infects your portrayal of the area.

And it’s a Disney movie, so again, there’s this temptation to maybe sanitize or smooth some of the edges, but when you have a director who lives there and who knows how rare an opportunity it is to tell this story from within, that was something that was really important for her. From out of the gate, that was a conversation that was always being had. This wasn’t going to be what a studio perceives it to be. Also, Tendo Nagenda, who was one of our executives on the project, was of Ugandan descent, so we even had someone within the Disney company who also stressed that authenticity was a priority of his.

That, to me, is how we get films that are more truthful and more challenging for the audience. You really need to look at who’s making it. This is a female director, and that’s important for a story like this. I mean, I think if it was a male director there would have been this push to make my character the protagonist, which is what we’ve seen so often in these kinds of movies. He would be the coach who goes in and rallies his players together with grand speeches and all this kind of stuff. But as a woman, Mira’s perspective is different. Wonderfully, it’s a story about this girl – an AFRICAN girl – living in a slum who is the person that will drive us through the narrative. That was something we were all very aware of, and something that I talked to Mira about and became one of the reasons why I wanted to sign on.

What was it like working with so many children on Queen of Katwe, many of whom, like Madina Nalwanga, who plays Phiona, hadn’t acted before?

David Oyelowo: Yeah, you know how they say you should never work with kids or animals? Well, I don’t think I ever really subscribed to that and I do even less so now after this. I learned so much from this particular set of children. When people make that silly remark I think it’s because “child actors” are radically different from children who are literally from the slums of Katwe. They went through a two month acting boot camp to learn how to perform in front of a camera, but really they aren’t making the connection between what we were doing and what it would look like as a movie on the big screen.

While we were shooting, I took all of the children to go and see Jurassic World, and Madina was clutching my arm the whole time, absolutely terrified. During the movie, she turned to me and said, “Is that what we are doing?” And I was taken aback, and I said, “Um, have you seen a movie before?” And it turned out that was the first time she had ever seen a movie on the big screen and we were already halfway through her playing the lead in a Disney movie. (laughs) The second time she saw a movie on the big screen was the other night with 2,600 people at the Toronto International Film Festival and she was playing the lead in a Disney movie.

That sort of lack of restraint and that freeness in front of the camera is something that I actually learned from. For someone like myself, it’s so easy in front of a camera to become very technically proficient, but you could lose some of that freedom that comes from just being unaware what it’s all going to look like. As an actor, I know where the camera is, where the lights are, what those lights are doing, but these kids don’t. They’re just running around and being kids, and that infected me and gave me a refresher course in how to be truthful in front of the camera. I learned more from them than they did from me on this shoot.

Did you know much about the game of chess when you took this project on and what’s your appreciation for the game like now?

David Oyelowo: I didn’t have a history with it. I had never actually played the game before, if you can believe it. So I had a bit of a crash course when I started, and it was more than a little bit unfair. (laughs) I was being trained by chess masters, so my limitations were constantly in front of me every day that we practised.

But I do play it all the time now at home, and I play it with my kids. As the film illustrates and I understand better now, the game of chess is a fantastic metaphor for life. It’s a real teacher of patience. You know the goal is to get to the king, but if you focus purely on that, you will get picked off early. You’ve got to think several moves ahead. You have to anticipate what the other player is going to do, and that’s a really great life lesson. But I’m definitely a new fan of the game.

How good are you at it?

David Oyelowo: (laughs) That’s a really unfair question. I’m good enough to beat my kids, FOR NOW. (laughs) That’s about it, really. I’m certainly nowhere near as good as any of the people Robert has taught to play chess.  It’s funny, because apart from myself and Lupita, a lot of the cast in the film is Ugandan, and a lot of them had gone through the chess academy in the film. Not all of them, but a lot of them had been playing for years. Lupita and I were the luddites here. We were the charlatans.

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