Who is the most powerful African in Hollywood? I wouldn’t dare to answer that question definitively, but Tendo Nagenda would definitely make the shortlist. He is the executive vice president of production at Disney – the world’s biggest entertainment company.
The son of a Ugandan father and Belizean mother, Nagenda was born and mostly raised in Los Angeles, California, on a steady diet of American media, from adventure movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones to shows like Miami Vice, Who’s the Boss, The Cosby Show, A Different World, as well as a wide variety of books and comics. His world view was shaped along the way by international travel to both of his parents’ home nations as well as to Europe and other parts of the US where other relatives lived.
After graduating university with degrees in economics and government, Nagenda enjoyed a lucrative position as a financial consultant with global firm Deloitte and Touche before making a major transition into the world of cinematic storytelling. His career in production spans more than a decade, from his beginnings at HBO Films to a junior creative executive position at Warner Independent Pictures, a stint with Plan B Entertainment (Brad Pitt’s company) and Good Universe, before becoming Disney’s vice president of production in 2010.
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After bringing several popular, live-action family films to the screen, including last year’s remake of Cinderella, he is responsible for Disney’s first live-action, non-documentary film featuring Africa, “Queen of Katwe.” Set in Uganda, it is the story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl from the slums of the capital Kampala, who is exposed to the game of chess one day and ends up competing internationally for the title of chess master.
Starring Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” and David Oyelowo of “Selma”, and directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”), “Queen of Katwe” will have its general release in the US on September 30th, with additional premieres scheduled for Uganda in October, and South Africa later in the year. It will also be featured at film festivals in Toronto, New York, and London.
While the increased presence of African stars such as Nyong’o and Oyelowo has gotten a lot of attention lately, the roles played behind the camera are equally if not more important in redefining how the continent and her people are portrayed.
Read along as Nagenda explains how he found the courage to pursue his passion, how he overcome the challenges he faced along the road to becoming Disney’s highest African executive, and how he managed to get this groundbreaking film to the big screen, plus a few words of advice on the future of Africa – and Africans – in the movie business.
F2FA: First, how did you make the big career change from finance to film production? Did you always know you had a creative side, or did you discover it on the job?
Nagenda: I think I always had a creative side, but I didn’t always realize it, or that it was okay to explore. As the first son of first-generation immigrant parents from Uganda and Belize, we didn’t have any connections to the film business or the arts, but my parents were both creative and lovers of art and film, so I unknowingly explored a lot of my creative side through them.
I was always very curious about the process of film and television production, not just the final product but what goes into making it and the business side as well. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t passionate about finance even though the job was informative and interesting. So I did a lot of research into film and television production, and then I decided to attend the New York Film Academy, a 12-week program where we made a number of short films with our classmates.
I really enjoyed it, and it inspired me to look into the business full-time, I found a job at HBO cable channel in production finance, so I could learn production while I did finance. I also took a lot of classes at UCLA Extension to learn more about the creative side.
By networking through my college alumni association, I was able to meet some folks who were in production, one of whom offered me an internship with her producer. I worked one day a week for 8-10 weeks until they had an open position and offered me the job. That was the first job I had in production. I also continued to learn and made a couple of short films, some of which were even bought by HBO.
I don’t think that the arts are thought of as a realistic goal in a lot of cultures outside the United States, largely because there’s not a known financial benefit to doing it, prestige, and it’s a very hard road. Initially you don’t get paid anything to do it.
When I started to explore, I think my parents were somewhat concerned like, “Hey, what’s your plan here?” But they never discouraged me from pursuing my passion. When I was about to leave my job at HBO for a 50 percent pay cut, it was actually my dad who encouraged me to do it because if I didn’t, I would never know if I could have done it. That was the final push that I needed.
F2FA: Wow. ‘Queen of Katwe’ must be a real feather in your cap, then, professionally and personally. How did you decide that this particular story needed to be brought to the big screen?
Nagenda: This story came to me from colleagues at ESPN Films, which is owned by Disney. We were talking about movie ideas, and they had read an article that was coming out in ESPN magazine in a few months. They passed the story to me not knowing that I was Ugandan, just thinking that it was a great story.
There are many, many stories worthy of being told that originate on the continent of Africa. This one resonated with me for three reasons.
One was my personal relationship to it. I moved to Uganda when I was twelve years old. Phiona Mutesi is about eleven years old when our movie starts, so I related to that. It was set in Uganda, and I don’t think we’ve seen enough positive stories come out of that country. We’ve seen movies about Idi Amin like “Last King of Scotland.” Mira Nair made “Mississippi Masala,” which is about a family that was expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. So we’ve seen interesting, good stories, but we haven’t seen this story.
Second, I thought that the story itself fit very well with the stories that Disney tells thematically. At the time, I was developing a live-action version of Cinderella, which may be the best-known underdog story of all time. I thought that “Queen of Katwe” was similarly a Cinderella story in the sense that Phiona was such an underdog in theory, but she was able to rise to great heights through her talents and her gifts.
I also thought it was very magical – someone who was largely illiterate walking into a youth program and picking up a chess piece for the first time, and then being able to take her talents in chess all the way to the World Olympiad in Russia – if I had made it up, most people wouldn’t have believed it possible. Imagination and magic are what we think of when we think of Disney films. It has a lot of heart and humor and in some way it was an adventure, which are also themes that make up a Disney film.
Third, it has something to say about the real talents, gifts, and genius that live everywhere. It is my belief that genius is in all young people. Every young person is gifted – the only question is will they discover that gift, and once discovered, will that gift be nurtured by mentors, parents, teachers, caregivers? In, Phiona Mutesi’s story, both happened. So whether you live in Uganda, Accra, Brixton, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, LA, or Rio de Janeiro, I think that part of the story is relatable. There are kids with gifts all over.
F2FA: Was it very difficult or challenging to get the film greenlighted and made?
Nagenda: Well, development is always easier to do than greenlighting and production. We developed the story for about four years before it was actually greenlit, going through different incarnations of the script. It wasn’t until Mira Nair came on board, about two years into development, that we found the best way to tell the story. We brought on the writer William Wheeler – a chess enthusiast who had written Mira’s prior film “Reluctant Fundamentalist” – and her producing partner Lydia Pilcher.
Once we had the script right, we had to work to see how we could make the film economically and make it enticing. We wanted to shoot in Uganda within a reasonable budget – we also shot some of the film in South Africa. We had to find a way to cast the film with two adult leads that would not only give it a quality pedigree but a commercial pedigree. We were lucky to get Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyewelo.
The rest of the cast is Ugandan, including the kids, none of whom had ever acted before. Mira had experience working with kids and set up an acting boot camp to help prepare them for their roles. We had some other great actors of Ugandan descent, specifically Ntare Guma Mwine, and a few others who had been in “Last King of Scotland.”
F2FA: What do you think it will take to bring more stories about Africa to the big screen that don’t fit the stereotypical war-poverty-corrupt leader mold?
Nagenda: I think that we have to continue to look for stories that will resonate not only in Africa but around the world, meaning stories that have themes that are relatable to people in many different places but that happen to take place in Africa. That doesn’t mean that you water down the story or that you change the story, but you find a way into it that people can relate to.
There have been many different cultures that have been able to break into the world cinema scene because they’ve been able to do that, such as “Y Tu Mama Tambien” or “Amores Perros” from Mexico, “City of God” from Brazil, Pedro Almodovar’s films from Spain, Matthew Kasavich’s films from France.
We also have to look to Africa’s present and future as we think about storytelling, not just its past. Many films that are set in various cultures or other places aren’t always based on a true story. They’re fictional narratives including some of the biggest stories in the world like Harry Potter.
F2FA: As a producer of children’s entertainment, what kinds of stories do you think are important to help African youth to envision their futures?
Nagenda: Definitely stories that have positive images of people on-screen. Stories that are relatable to their day-to-day lives, meaning they don’t shy away from reality, but they depict it in a broader context, and they show where people can go with their own stories. Also, stories in which people see themselves not in their own environment, where they’re allowed to imagine and dream about other places and get a different perspective about their own lives.
F2FA: How has your culture prepared you to attain success in Corporate America and the movie industry? Are there any ways that your culture has hindered you?
Nagenda: As I mentioned, when I was 12, we moved to Uganda for about a year and a half. There was no television or movie theaters to go to. I just did a lot of reading – The Godfather, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby – and that opened my mind to storytelling. I would say that’s probably the root of what I’m doing now in the film business, which is reading a lot and thinking about stories.
There have been plenty of challenges. You have to build a support network, so I had to start from scratch. But coming from multiple backgrounds – being Ugandan, being Belizean, but also being American, growing up in America – helps with meeting people regularly who have different experiences. I didn’t necessarily fit in anywhere, which made it in some ways easier to relate everywhere to a large number of people. I started to find commonalities between myself and other people in the different places and environments that I lived. In large part, I’ve done that in the entertainment industry and in Corporate America.
Another challenge – and I expect it would be for a lot of people, in particular first generation children of working-class immigrants – is that when you’re first starting out in the entertainment industry, you are very poorly paid and it’s hard to make a living. You have college debt or family obligations; you want to help your family out and not be still dependent on them.
To pursue my interest in entertainment, I had to go a number of years without making a lot of money or being able to help my family the way I was accustomed to. But we persevered and I was able to turn it to the good and get back on track financially.
But when you’re pursuing and doing things that you’re passionate about, you tend to work harder and longer at them, and you have a higher success rate. So doing something that was on the surface a bit riskier was actually less risky because I was more focused on it.
F2FA: What suggestions would you give to African youth or young adults who aspire to a career in the entertainment industry?
Nagenda: First, you should think very freely and openly about what you’re passionate about and why. How clear are you on what you want to do and why, so that other people can come along with you? Find something to run towards, something you want to do instead of something you don’t want to do. A lot of people know they don’t want to be lawyers, but they don’t necessarily want to do what I’m doing because it has a host of challenges that you can’t always anticipate.
Once you’ve gotten clear on what you want to do, work towards being able to do that on a regular basis and allow that to tell you if you’re really interested in it. I didn’t just quit my job and start working in the movie business knowing nothing. I kept my jobs in finance and took classes on the side, basically creating time to do what I thought I was interested in until I thought I knew enough to get employed doing it. I put in the work while I was still doing the other work.
Put in a plan of attack that works for your circumstances. Sometimes it might take a month, or it might take a year or two. My first assistant broke into the business slowly, first by reading books and scripts I would send him while working in finance in Washington, DC. After a year and a half, I told him if he was really serious, he should find a way to move to Los Angeles and work for free as an intern for three months, and if he did, I would help him find an internship and then a job. And he found a way to do it – he got so specific about his timeline and what he wanted to do, and he was patient for a year and a half.
Nobody is going to be as serious about your career or your passion as you are, so they can’t have out-thought you or out-worked you about what you want to do. So be specific, come up with a plan, know what your story is and why you want to tell it.