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3 years after ’12 Years,’ Nyong’o’s face is back on screen

The filmmaker Mira Nair was familiar with the regal grace of Lupita Nyong'o long before most.

By: | Toronto | Updated: September 23, 2016 3:36 AM
The filmmaker Mira Nair was familiar with the regal grace of Lupita Nyong'o long before most. The Indian-born, New York-based Nair has been close friends with Nyong'o's family for years. (Reuters) The filmmaker Mira Nair was familiar with the regal grace of Lupita Nyong’o long before most. (Reuters)

The filmmaker Mira Nair was familiar with the regal grace of Lupita Nyong’o long before most. The Indian-born, New York-based Nair has been close friends with Nyong’o’s family for years. One of Nyong’o’s first jobs in the movies was interning in New York for Nair’s production company. She also later worked for Nair’s Uganda-centered film school, Maisha Film Labs.

What does Nair recall of Nyong’o as a younger woman? “Like she is: immensely thoughtful and stylish,” Nair says with a laugh. “She wouldn’t speak unless she had something to say. And full of fun, which sometime you guys don’t see. But there’s a real appetite for life there.”

In the African chess prodigy tale “Queen of Katwe,” a now much more established Nyong’o has reunited with Nair for a film that reflects much of the actress’s past, as well as her future. It is, surprisingly, the first time moviegoers have gotten to see Nyong’o’s face on screen since her breakout, Oscar-winning performance in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.”

In the three years since, she’s appeared in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in a motion-capture performance, lent her voice to “The Jungle Book” and starred on Broadway in Danai Guirira’s Liberian drama “Eclipsed,” earning a Tony nomination. But “Queen of Katwe,” she says, epitomizes the kind of film she wants to be in.

“The success of ’12 Years of Slave’ has put me in a position where I can choose,” Nyong’o said in a recent interview. “I want to honor the opportunity that I’ve been given. So I’ve worked very hard to choose things that I’m passionate about because I think I’m most useful when I feel conviction. I want to continue to do work that moves me and develops cultural conversations.

“It takes one film at a time, one story at a time, to actually shift the norm,” she adds.

“Queen of Katwe,” which opens Friday, is itself an anomaly. It’s a family-friendly film made in Africa with an entirely black cast — a first for Disney. The film, about Phiona Mutesi’s (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) rise from the Katwe slums in Kampala, Uganda, to elite levels of chess, is a family-friendly made in Africa with an entirely black cast — a first for Disney. Nair shot it in South Africa and Uganda. Nyong’o plays Phiona’s head-strong mother.

The local flavor, as well as the real people the story is based on (who appear briefly but movingly at the end), gives “Queen of Katwe” an infectious spirit. During one celebratory scene in Katwe, extras mixed with nearby onlookers, eager to join in the exultation.

“Because this doesn’t happen very often, we were all filled with such gratitude to be able to tell this story,” says Nyong’o.

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