'Queen of Katwe' director Mira Nair believes authenticity is the key to her success
Mira Nair knows a thing or two about creating a moment. The seasoned director has been producing notable, and award-winning, work for three decades -- think "Salaam Bombay!" "Mississippi Masala" and "Monsoon Wedding." Her next project, Disney's "Queen of Katwe," which premieres nationwide on Sept. 23, has already garnered hashtag-worthy acclaim. Much of Nair's success can be credited to her approach to producing a Hollywood hit.
The rule of engagement is simple: Be authentic. Whether she's discussing a former or current project, the movie vet uses the word "authentic" quite frequently. Why? Maybe it's because the India-born and Harvard-educated director gets that showcasing a community's truth is more powerful than appropriating it.
For example, in "Katwe," the real-life story of Ugandan chess phenom Phiona Mutesi, Nair not only shot on location in the main character's actual hometown, she also hired locals from the neighborhood, even Mutesi's former team members and coach, to ensure ... you guessed it, authenticity. According to Nair, veracity is something audiences can feel and that, ultimately, the box office respects.
Here, the celebrated artist talks to espnW about making films the "Nair way" and more.
espnW: Women, especially women of color, are often overlooked for leadership roles in Hollywood. How did you go about bucking the status quo?
Nair: For me it is about confidence. You have to convince people that you have something to say and the talent and skill to be able to say it. I practice great humility with what I don't know. However, I'm very confident with what I do know. It is important to be mentored and to be a mentor. In order for women to get over the shocking inequities in Hollywood and elsewhere, we have to organize, because there is strength in numbers. Vocalizing and reminding people that women are not just to be looked after; we bring an enormous commerciality to the table.
espnW: You were confident enough to stand up and advocate for the film to be made in Phiona Mutesi's hometown of Kampala, Uganda. Why?
Nair: Authenticity has always been my treasure from the beginning -- and I've been making movies for 30 years. I think cinema should capture truth. In this film, we shot it in the real streets, the real church where Robert Katende [Mutesi's chess coach] taught. The community is a character in the film. The entire community came out for filming. You can't duplicate that level of embrace.
espnW: You also have a personal relationship with the city of Kampala. Please explain.
Nair: I've lived in Kampala for the last 27 years, and it is really my home. I have always wanted to tell the story of the city's people and where I live. It's easy to see the paucity of Africa from [publicized] images. Any depictions of the continent are always negative ones -- images of despair, suffering or dictatorships. Nothing resembles the everyday joy and dignity of the continent. So when I was offered the story of Phiona Mutesi, which is a remarkable [narrative] of an incredible girl who dared to have a dream, I had to work on it. Overall, she had the support of her mother, the rest of her family and a village that wanted her to reach her full potential. It was a beautiful thing to do. There's a fantastic spirit of what I call embracing life. I wanted to pay tribute to the spirit of not having self-pity, or waiting for a savior from the outside to come and raise you up, but doing it from within.
espnW: Authenticity came with a price. You had to set up a boot camp to train local actors. What are some of the challenges that accompany your approach?
Nair: I've done this in all of my films, from "Salaam Bombay!" to "Mississippi Masala." There was no question of me casting the Pioneers, a real-life chess team that lives in Katwe -- which is a community within Kampala. The children had a real grace and a sense of mischief that they brought to their performances because this is their home. They taught me how to "be." There are essentially 90 roles in the film, and everyone cast is from Uganda except our two Hollywood stars, David Oyelowo [as Katende] and Lupita Nyong'o [as Mutesi's mother, Nakku Harriet], and they are also from the continent. They also bring a greater gravitas and truth to the project.
espnW: Madina Nalwanga, the young woman who plays the lead role, was an unknown. You must have seen hundreds of girls for this part. What made you cast her?
Nair: Choosing my Phiona was the most challenging of all. I think I must have looked for over six months and saw more than 700 young girls, most Ugandan. I knew that we would find her in Uganda, but the real issue was that on this young set of shoulders the whole movie would ride. So I had to fall in love with this young woman. I trust my own instincts with casting. Six months into [prepping for the film], my casting director was led to this dance company near Katwe and filmed this young girl, Madina, during dance rehearsal. They came and showed me her image and I kind of internally rolled my eyes -- "another girl" -- but I was riveted by her look, vitality and the luminosity in her. Madina had a very similar life to Phiona. She also sold corn for a living. She also lived with several siblings. She also followed a neighbor one day, like Phiona, that took her to dance academy in the neighborhood where she became a dancer at the age of 4. Then we met and it was a three-week testing process. We placed her in several scenes. We taught her chess.
espnW: Speaking of chess, how did you teach the entire cast the game?
Nair: We had only one expert on set, Robert Katende, who was Phiona Mutesi's actual coach. He is the best teacher and consultant. Keep in mind these chess games were from actual matches Phiona played, so the moves had to be carefully recalibrated, taught and designed. Robert began to teach chess to the kids acting as the Pioneers four to five weeks before the shooting began. There were also several original Pioneers who were acting in the film. There was a strong sense of stewardship, and the kids got into it so much. When I would say "cut," the kids would keep playing! Continuity was a big challenge because I'd have to actually beg them to stop playing. The game really harnesses the mind. The kids became so focused. It was beautiful to see.
espnW: Playing chess changed the entire trajectory of Phiona Mutesi's life. What do you want people to get out of the film?
Nair: I want you to be transported into a world that might have been far away, but when you enter it and see her family and teacher, you understand that genius is everywhere; it just has to be nourished. I want to inspire. I want to make people believe that dreams are possible and can be achieved regardless of how little you have. And I want to bring a portrait of a specific place on the large continent called Africa, which we never see everyday life in or folks achieving extraordinary dreams in the way we see in "Queen of Katwe." It's full of music, style, vibrancy and real fun. In many ways, I shaped the story like the human heart, like an accordion, which expands and then squeezes, because that is what life is like.
S. Tia Brown is a pop culture journalist, licensed therapist and an avid believer in the power of Spanx. Follow her @tiabrowntalk