There exists a long-running, peculiar trope in Disney animated films: that of the missing mother. Though wicked stepmothers and clumsy fathers abound, casting its plucky female heroes off to lavish balls and cursed castles, the presence of a mother’s steadying hand is curiously absent in the canon. Its prevalence has even bred a conspiracy theory that Walt Disney employed this motif because he was wracked with guilt over the death of his own mother Flora, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning shortly after moving into a North Hollywood home purchased by Disney.
Fortunately, Disney’s live-action movies have bucked the trend. And Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, a sports biopic that went criminally overlooked in theaters—but is now available in ancillary—gave us one of 2016’s most valorous moms in Nakku Harriet, played by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Nakku is the mother to Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the Katwe slum in Kampala, Uganda. As Phiona sharpens her skills under the tutelage of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an after-school instructor for the missionary project Sports Outreach Institute, Nakku takes measures to ensure that she doesn’t lose sight of where she comes from.
“This is a mother-daughter story,” Nyong’o tells me. “It’s a story about achieving your dreams, but it’s also about the village that it takes to have a child actualize their dreams because Phiona, at the end of the day, needs the support and blessing of her mother, even though her mother may not have the resources to help her realize her dream. She’s her emotional stability.”
When I ask Nyong’o if she’s paraphrasing Hillary Clinton, she laughs. But it did take village to propel young Phiona from Katwe to competing for titles in international Chess Olympiads.
Phiona lost her father when she was three to AIDS, and was raised by her struggling single mother in a shanty. To make money, she and her sisters sold maize in the local market. At 9, she was forced to drop out of school because her mother could no longer afford it, and shortly thereafter stumbled upon the Sports Outreach Institute and took up chess.
The making of Queen of Katwe mirrored Phiona’s journey, with Nair shooting on location in the slums of Katwe and recruiting hundreds of locals to serve as extras in the film. Its lead, Madina Nalwanga, was discovered in a community dance class in a poor section of Kampala.
“The child actors had never acted before for the most part, so they were coming to this fresh, hungry, and super curious. That definitely influenced and fed me, and I know it did the same for David [Oyelowo],” offers Nyong’o. “And to be surrounded by Ugandans in Uganda every day was an opportunity to deepen the character because research was walking all around me.”
Though born in Mexico City, Nyong’o grew up Nairobi, Kenya, about 400 miles from Katwe. Her upbringing was middle-class, with her father serving as a professor at the University of Nairobi. She learned chess at a young age, though confesses she “was not very good” at it. Her passion has always been acting, and like Phiona, Nyong’o had the unwavering support of her mother, who helped enroll her in the Nairobi repertory company Phoenix Players.
“My parents, I have a lot to thank them for, and I think this movie is one way to show my absolute gratitude for the way they raised me,” she says. “They were keen to learn who their children were, and to try to facilitate our natural interests. They were thoroughly supportive and would educate themselves on what was going on in our community that I could get involved in, and really made it possible for me to be an actor. When I was 14, I got cast in the only professional theater we had there as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and my mother drove me to rehearsal every day after school and waited for me in the car—three, four hours every day just waiting in the car—and then drove me home. That’s how dedicated they were to helping us realize our dreams.”
Given her Mexican citizenship—and the fact that she currently resides in New York City—I asked Nyong’o how she feels about the recent election of Donald Trump. “I don’t care to comment,” she casually replies.
One area where she is willing to weigh in is diversity in Hollywood and last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Nyong’o made a huge splash as Patsey, a viciously abused slave in Steve McQueen’s 2013 saga 12 Years a Slave, besting the likes of Jennifer Lawrence in winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and emerging as a red carpet favorite and magazine cover girl.
But in the two years since Nyong’o’s big 2014 Oscars, a ceremony that saw several black actors receive nominations, there’s been zero Academy Award nominations for actors of color. Twenty nominations. No POC actors. This year should represent a marked improvement, with African-American actors like Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis the prohibitive frontrunners in the supporting categories, and Denzel Washington one of the favorites for Best Actor. Nyong’o, too, has an outside shot at a Best Supporting Actress nod for her stellar work in Katwe.
“I think the Academy is making steps towards refining and adjusting the way its members participate and things like that,” shares Nyong’o, who was granted Academy membership with her Oscar win. “Because part of that is who are the Academy members, what are the demographics of the Academy members, and how can those be influenced in order to adequately represent the world we live in and the industry we are participating in? There are those kinds of things happening behind the scenes. It is a rich year for multiculturalism in movies at the moment, but it was so the year of 12 Years a Slave as well. What’s important is the momentum more than the moment. “It is about the perspective of the people telling the stories, and who gets the right to express that perspective—not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera and with the decision-makers,” she continues. “The more we’re conscious of the importance of respecting and representing the world we live in, the more we gain momentum in inclusion.”
Since winning her Oscar, the 33-year-old Nyong’o has appeared as the CGI space pirate Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and as the wolf-mother Raksha in The Jungle Book. She’s also received a Tony nomination for her performance in the play Eclipsed, and is set to star as Nakia in the upcoming Marvel superhero film Black Panther. Nyong’o says it’s been important for her to maintain a sense of perspective—especially in an industry that has been unkind to Oscar winners of color, from Jennifer Hudson to Mo’Nique. “With Star Wars and all the professional things I’ve experienced—along with the Academy Award—it’s helped me to grow as an actress,” she says. “Because that happened at the beginning, it cannot be the endpoint. It’s not the culmination of my career; it’s the beginning. So I’ve recognized that and am just trying to work at what I love most, which is putting myself in uncomfortable, interesting positions.”