The Importance of African Storytelling in Film

Years a Slave, Blood Diamond, Tsotsi, and the most recent Queen of Katwe; have gone on global screens, showing the often distorted African story with authenticity and dignity. It’s an exciting time for African storytelling on the big screen. The most recent offering is Queen of Katwe. Set in Uganda, the film uncovers life in one of the most poverty-stricken slums in the capital, Kampala. Based on a true story, it shows a family that is striving for better life and making the most of what they have. Director Mira Nair said in an interview, “I am deeply inspired by people who are considered marginal to our society – and how they work their way to create who they are – despite the abject struggle of where they might be.” The cinematic potential for the story was discovered in an article written by Tim Crothers in ESPN Magazine. The piece was inspired by the work of sports outreach program, and from that story – a film was realized.

Nair says that while living in Uganda for 27 years, she loved the scenery and the community, but most importantly the influence of her school, Maisha Film Lab.  The film school, which has been operating for more than a decade, nurtures young aspiring filmmakers and has over 680 filmmakers enrolled at the school. The director emphasises the importance of telling our stories, “because if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.” “Its always been stunning and remarkable to me especially since I have one foot in Hollywood from the beginning, and my heart in Uganda,” she adds.

Cast member and Oscar-winning actress, Lupita Nyong’o, who has also played a lead role in the historical film, 12 Years a Slave, commends Nair’s work.  “There is an authenticity that Mira captured in this film and that seldom happens on a film like this, on a platform as global as Disney.  So to have an uplifting story set in the slums of Katwe was priceless,” says Nyong’o.

When she sat with the real Harriet, who she plays in the film, she found that “Harriet is a woman who was dignified no matter how much money she had in her pocket, she sacrificed a lot for her children and they came first in her life, but she would not sacrifice her principles, and that is something that I just wanted to honour.”

Nair affirmed with proclamation the importance of true depictions of Africans, stating, “That is a massive lesson for the rest of the world.  And it is about time that we show a portrait of how we really live!  And that doesn’t happen often, so I’m very grateful to have had this chance to do this.”

“And to have a story like Fiona’s, firstly that its remarkably true – but one that gives me the chance to distill what it is like to live on a daily basis with the everyday joy and the everyday dignity and the everyday struggle – because, let’s not sugar coat that it’s not all roses, but it was the kind of story I was waiting for.”


According to Lupita Nyong’o the ability to showcase these kinds of African stories on a global screen is about opportunity, and having people with a global and multicultural perspective in high places.  “I don’t think any one film can change the course of an entire entertainment entity, but it is encouraging that Disney was interested in this film to begin with. And the reason why this film was made in the first place is because Disney has an executive that is of Ugandan decent, named Tendo Nagenda and he walked this project, up and down the halls until they agreed with it.”

Africans are continuing to take charge of their stories using the big screens. Nyongo’o is just example of the new generation of young Africans leading the way. She is currently producing the screen version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Americanah, where she will also star in the main role. She describes it as a project that she is very passionate about as it’s a story that gives us a whole other African perspective”.

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