In Kampala, Uganda, chess barely exists. There is not even a word for it in the city’s native language of Luganda.
But standing in the dilapidated Agape Church in the slum of Katwe, Tim Crothers watched as dozens of impoverished children studied the pieces spread across checkered boards, strategizing their next move in a game completely foreign to the country around them.
Among the players was Phiona Mutesi, the epitome of an underdog — a young girl living in one the worst slums in the world, who also happens to be a chess prodigy — and the reason Crothers, a freelance journalist and lecturer in the UNC School of Media and Journalism since 2001, had traveled thousands of miles to east Africa.
Crothers knew immediately upon arriving in the church that Mutesi’s story was bigger than just his 5,000-word magazine article for ESPN Magazine, and within a few years, the story was rejuvenated for his third book, “The Queen of Katwe.”
“It’s the kind of story every writer dreams to write — it’s so easy,” Crothers said. “I didn’t have to do a lot of extra work. I just had to report the story as it was and I didn’t have to sensationalize it in anyway because it works on its own. All I had to do was put the pieces together.”
Now, six years after first meeting Mutesi, Crother’s telling of her story has again taken a new form: a feature film produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films. Starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, “Queen of Katwe” is scheduled to premiere in September.
“I’m amazed myself that it’s actually happening,” Crothers said. “I’m thrilled that it’s going to happen.”
“The Queen of Katwe” follows Mutesi, who stumbled into a chess program as a 9-year-old searching for food in the slum outside the capital city of Uganda. With the help of her mentor Robert Katende, Mutesi quickly became one of the best chess players in the world, winning Uganda’s national chess championship by age 15 and earning a spot in the 2010 Chess Olympiad — the most prestigious team chess tournament.
Crothers first heard of Mutesi while promoting his second book (Carolina basketball coach Roy William’s autobiography “Hard Work”). After the speech to a local rotary club, a guest told Crothers of a story he’d read in a Christian newsletter about a young Ugandan girl playing chess.
“She just had all the elements of the perfect underdog story,” Crothers said. “She just has absolutely no business doing what she’s done. At 9 years old, when she showed up at the door of that chess project, she did not read or write. She had dropped out of school for several years. She was selling corn off the top of her head in the slum. Her destiny seemed to be already laid out for her: if she could continue to survive, she was likely to become a young mother and follow the path of her sister and many other young girls.”
Crothers traveled to Uganda in 2010 to spend four days with Mutesi in her hometown before following her to the Chess Olympiad in Siberia, Russia for the ESPN Magazine article.
Shortly after the article ran, Crothers returned to Uganda to flesh out the story for the book, which was published in 2012 and optioned by Disney films.
But Crothers was never convinced his book would hit the big screen — his was one of thousands of books optioned by the movie powerhouse. It wasn’t until Mira Nair, whose husband is from Uganda, was named the director of the film and Nyong’o and Oyelowo signed on to the project that the reality sunk in.
“I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the possibly that it could actually happen,” Crothers said of his book becoming a movie. “I kept thinking it’s about a slum in Uganda, a young girl and chess. These are not necessarily the ingredients the American moviegoer is lining up at the theater to see. It’s only when you put those pieces together the way they’ve been put together that it becomes a compelling story.”
After signing the story to Disney Films, Crothers released creative control and was not involved in the movie. In fact, the only clips he has seen were from a recently released trailer, which he admits to watching repeatedly.
His primary hope is that the movie is true to the characters and the story itself. At its core, Crothers said, “Queen of Katwe” and Mutesi’s story is one about a dream and the drive to reach it.
“If Phiona can accomplish what she’s accomplished through all of the roadblocks that have been put before her in her life, then the rest of us are capable of anything,” Crothers said. “At any point if [Mutesi or Katende] had said ‘I just think this is too hard’ it could have all fallen apart. It really is just a story about having a dream and fighting through so many different burdens to say ‘I still can do this.’”