“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.” That’s the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf quotation that opens the trailer for Queen of Katwe. (Ellen is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President of Liberia.) Tall order, but with Queen of Katwe, Disney delivers.
The film, based on a true story, is about a young Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi, living in the slums of Katwe. Through her own genius and the community’s support, Phiona is able to defeat the odds and become an international chess champion. Extraordinary directing, acting and cinematography aside, what struck me most about the film was how well it traversed the intricate ups and downs of Phiona’s life and the emotional turmoil she experienced. Phiona was portrayed as an emotionally well-rounded person, and we also saw the struggles and strengths of her family and the community that cheered Phiona onto success. It wasn’t just the characters but the acute attention to detail that really shined through in the filmmaking.
This was reiterated for me as the credits rolled and my friend, a native Zimbabwean, whispered in my ear, “The music is on point and the casting is perfect.” I trust her opinion, just as she would trust mine if we were watching a film about Central or South Asia or the Middle East. I say this because a few years back, I saw a film called Miral based in Palestine. Indian actress Freida Pinto was cast as the main character after her success in Slumdog Millionaire. Casting an Indian woman as a Palestinian was distracting, and it shows what happens when more value is placed on using a big name actress than creating an authentic experience.
After the screening, there was a livestream Q&A with Director Mira Nair and actors Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o. I was inspired as Mira discussed her process, and brands and marketers should take note as we aspire to create meaningful content. Mira spent time with the real Phiona and her mother to understand the details of all the places that they had lived, from the slums to the streets. She cast, hired crew and filmed locally. Most importantly, Mira spent six months searching for the right actor to play Phiona. Madina Nalwanga is the epitome of authentic and just as sweet off camera as she is on the big screen. Another striking moment for me was when David Oyelowo said it was important that the film’s director was a woman of color. He believes that as artists we can tend to focus on the story that most resonates with us, and had the director been a male, he may have focused more on Oyelowo’s character, detracting from Phiona, which is the real story.
There’s a lot that we can take away from this film’s process over to branded content. Casting can and should take time. We should also make sure the people we’re casting genuinely represent who they are supposed to be because there’s always someone out there who can tell the difference. And it’s not just important that we see diversity on camera, but it’s also important that diversity is reflected behind the scenes. By bringing women and people of color into decision-making roles, we’re bringing in people with different perspectives who can create authentic pieces that genuinely reflect the communities that are being represented. Telling an authentic story takes research and understanding of that culture, whether it’s on a different continent or in your own backyard. Queen of Katwe is great content. But more than just being great content, it was the process that led to that great content. That’s something worth emulating.