Interview: ‘Queen of Katwe’ Writer William Wheeler

The new Disney film Queen of Katwe is the latest of their live action films to take on sports movie conventions. Right alongside films such as The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible, and McFarland USA, is yet another underdog story. But unlike the films to come before, Queen of Katwe focuses on a story outside of the US borders (Katwe, Uganda), about a poor teenage girl who became the best chess player in Uganda. Based on a book by journalist Tim Crothers, Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) directed the film starring newcomer Madina Natwanga (a Uganda dancer) as chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, and cast David Oyelowo and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o in for the roles of Phiona’s coach Robert and her mother Nakku Harriet. The film was written by William Wheeler, Nair’s previous collaborator on the thriller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A TV and film writer, Wheeler’s previous biopic was comedic The Hoax (directed by Lasse Hallstrom) and most recently worked on adaptions for the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and Lego: Ningajo. We discussed his research and writing process on the crowd-pleasing and inspirational Queen Katwe.

Screenwriter William Wheeler

After working together on The Reluctant Fundamentalist did Mira bring you on board or was it the reverse?

Mira brought me onto this movie. We met and connected first working on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And that was actually a longer process. We worked on that for about a year and a half. And during that process we got to know each other pretty well and found we liked working together. So the executive at Disney that found the story thought of Mira very quickly because she’s a wonderful filmmaker and spends half of every year living in Uganda. And I believe Mira sent me the article by Tim Cruthers, which of course got me very interested and curious about the story of Phiona.

Did you and Mira do the research together?

The way the process started was, as we were talking about the proper approach to take, we determined very quickly that I would have to go and meet the people this film’s about. So I went to Kampala, Uganda in August of 2015, and spent 2 1/2 weeks there. And I was able to spend time with Phiona and her mother Harriet, and her sister and brothers. And during that process I really started to determine the process to take in order to tell this story right way. And we came to the decision that this young girl has developed a talent, and has a mother on one side who is very suspicious and worried about her daughter getting disappointed, but is herself resigned to the fact that their lives aren’t going to change or improve very much in Katwa. And then there is a new mentor this girl finds who is hopeful and really believes that simply by applying certain principals, you can change things about your life in a big way. So we saw this film as a kind of conversation between these two influences Phiona had in her life, and how she was trying to navigate her path to understand her own views on life.

David Oyelowo and director Mira Nair, behind the scenes. Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

I would imagine writing the part of Harriet, her mother, would be the bigger challenge because it would be so easy to introduce her as the antagonist who needs to be changed by this more hopeful figure. What did you find meeting Phiona and her mother that helped you understand her side a little better and make her a little more compelling than just the obstacle?

That’s partially answered with the casting of Lupita Nyong’o and the empathy and presence she brings to the role. That’s probably the big reason Harriet becomes a more complex figure in the film. But Mira and I really struggled to see this story from Harriet’s perspective. She was a widowed single mother, and every single day she was faced with this grinding poverty. To the point that they had to question whether they would eat each day, based on how much corn they sold. So the only antagonist in the movie is the circumstances, and everyone’s on the same page in their understanding that these circumstances need to be faced and overcome. The characters just thought differently about how to do that. So I think that helped up avoid making Harriet someone who’s standing in Phiona’s way.

Those realities about the poverty certainly are on the screen, but you didn’t have the characters discussing them in detail or make those socio-economic elements as big a part of the film as other movies might have. Were those ever a part of the script?

Mira’s husband is a renowned academic, Mahmood Mamdani, and one of his specialties is the socio-economic struggles in Uganda. So we certainly had access and had a historical perspective to draw from. And it just kept coming back around to the question, how do we suggest these broader issues, how do we hint at issues like poverty and teen pregnancy and healthcare, without overwhelming the movie? Because we weren’t making a little dark indie movie. We are making a Disney studio film that we were hopeful would play to a huge variety of audiences, all over the world. So that becomes the line you have to walk, to portray the truth and avoid minimizing the realities they live with. And the fact that there’s no medical care if you have no money to pay for it and really dark, class based prejudices, we tried to address this issues in the film, but address these realities with a lighter touch than I think audiences are probably used to.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

And I think that’s the difference between making those issues the subject matter and having it there as there as the undercurrent. Because it was clear that the movie was aware of these issues.

I hope so. With a few of these different issues, you choose your moments. So instead of there being a whole scene about that class based discrimination, the fact that the people of Katwe are looked upon as almost subhuman, we just included a few subtler moments. So there’s that scene where the champion shakes hands with Phiona and uses sanitizer. So we used those moments to hint at those issues, without overwhelming the film’s central story.

I think it was David who called the film a subversive sports movie, because it has a traditional structure but is looking at a sport we rarely consider, a country and class we’ve rarely seen in these films, and focuses on a female champion. Did you and Mira consider how the film would fit into this Disney-sports movie subgenre they’ve created?

We thought about that every second of every day. That was the goal we had as filmmakers, to expand the idea of what Disney saw as a Disney movie or Disney sports movie. And in fairness, they were very interested in doing that too. They were very conscious about choosing to tell this story because it was focused on a person of color, outside of the United States, and about a female protagonist. And were excited that none of those characteristic would be the main elements of the story. In a strange way, what I find subversive about the film is the fact that Phiona’s race isn’t an issue. It’s not what she’s worried about, it’s not her obstacle. So if we get people in the theaters, seeing this movie who are not the usual folks who see movies about Africa but are the same audiences that see those Disney sports movies every year, we are opening them up to a whole new world. If audiences open themselves up to her story in a personal way, we thought of that as a very good thing and reason to make this movie. And it probably informed every decision we made. It led to the decision to shoot the movie on location in Katwe, the decision not to have a white, male framing device, the decision to use non-actors and work with the real people that lived in the slums where the events took place. And to Disney’s credit, they embraced that and let us go all the way with it. And beyond just this movie, that means Disney has expanded their definition of what a Disney movie is and will hopefully see more movies from all over the world, and focusing on all different types of people and cultures.

Both this film and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are both very good at telling stories about people of color, while including them in the Hollywood landscape they’ve often been left out of or marginalized by. Are you conscious about wanting to take on that challenge within your industry?

I think that has to do with committing to inside out storytelling. You choose a story set somewhere and what often happened in the past is, the people making the decisions decide you need a white, often male, guide. Almost as a way to mediate the experience for themselves. So the typical approach for a movie like this you might have seen would be to have a white reporter finding this story, the white savior idea that would pop up in films made by people who were not that international and didn’t understand the need to see the world through the eyes of someone of another color. And that leaked into a lot of the storytelling we’ve gotten over the past few years, at the same time that people were attempting to broaden the spectrum of stories being told. So I worked very hard to keep their perspective first and foremost, and a lot of this came from my work with Mira who has based her whole career as a director on avoiding that. I work with the international branch of feature film lab every year with Sundance, and will go to Jordan, Japan or Mumbai, and the constant exposer I’ve received to these international filmmakers and their deeply human stories they want to tell, makes me realize how similar we all are. They all circle back to the same themes over and over again. The importance of family or ambition to rise out of circumstances and historical guilt. I came to a place as a writer where I felt there was no need for me to mediate that experience, and felt it was more valuable to get inside their head. There’s a basic commonality that makes that a pretty easy leap to make. But it was a conscious career choice I made.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

There’s a line by a woman in the Uganda Chess organization who speaks of Phiona’s talent, and comment on how rare it is to see a girl playing the fierceness of the boys. It’s one of the few times her gender’s addressed directly in dialogue. Why did you feel the need to include it?

Part of what we learned during our time there was, there’s a particular strain of sexism, and that applies to the chest world as it would apply in any other sport. So part of the shock experienced when Phiona started winning was, this girl is beating all the boys, and that caused a lot of upheaval and frustration among the boys she would beat. There’s a moment when she wins a trophy which says best in boys, because what really happened was, Robert was impatient over her only competing against girls, so he entered her in the boys competition. And she beat all of them, and she really did have a trophy that had engraved, best in boys. And one of the reasons she did so well so quickly was the fact that she’s a particularly aggressive chess player, she is seen as someone that will attack hard. So we have that line, I think it was spoken by a woman within the organization, who praised those qualities in her. I doubt those are qualities unique to Phiona, you’d probably find a lot of girls that would have the same competitive spirit, but it wouldn’t have been celebrated as a good trait for a girl to have. Phiona wasn’t just the best female chess player, she was the best chess player in Uganda.

I didn’t even realize tournaments were split between men and women.

Because it makes no sense. It’s not as if there’s a physical difference to consider. There’s no reason there should be two competitions, so we had a little fun pointing that fact out with that trophy.

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