Nigerian-English actor David Oyelowo has been forging a stellar career without a lot of fanfare, most recently playing Martin Luther King in Selma and now King Seretse Khama in Amma Asante’s new film, A United Kingdom.
An accomplished stage actor, he's also currently making a huge impression playing Othello in an off-Broadway production with Daniel Craig as Iago.
“Oyelowo makes a fierce Othello, using his imposing physical presence and resonant voice to reduce this noble character to a more primal state”, writes Varity theatre critic Marilyn Stasio. No wonder Craig, whose first love has always been the stage, is procrastinating about continuing with Bond, given Ben Brantley’s New York Times review - Oyelowo and Craig enter the ranks of first-rate classical stage actors... This incandescent production makes it possible for us to speak with rare understanding of this Othello - and this Iago - as they are.”
In Toronto, Oyelowo was promoting starring roles in both Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and A United Kingdom where he plays the romantic lead. He is also wielding his considerable power as a producer.
Watch 'A United Kingdom' trailer:
You’ve starred in two Africa-themed movies in quick succession.
David Oyelowo: I wanted to see films about the continent of Africa, that aren’t rooted in the negative side of things, the corruption, the child soldiers, the dictators and the poverty. Africa isn’t just about that, you know. I lived there for seven years myself, being of Nigerian parentage and you know, like with A United Kingdom, we have kings. We have incredibly bright people who love their people and lead beautifully. We have 11-year-old girls living in slums who are incredibly bright, brilliant people who have the potential to go on to be chess champions and do.
Q: Do you believe that movies can help people’s lives, especially in terms of Queen of Katwe in Uganda?
DO: Well, I think it’s certainly going to make people think. The last film I did in Uganda was The Last King of Scotland and you know, when anyone thinks of Uganda they probably think of Idi Amin. They think of this dictator. As wonderful as I feel that film was, that’s only a part of Uganda’s history.
Q: You’ve enjoyed support from Oprah Winfrey during your career.
DO: A formative moment for me was playing Dr. King in Selma and, being British, I faced a lot of opposition. I’m not a famous actor or anything like that. I certainly didn’t get the film financed. But I did The Butler with Oprah and I showed her a little tape of me having auditioned to do the Dr. King role and she said, “I believe this is your destiny and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen for you.” As we continued to struggle to get Selma made, she came on as a producer. She ended up starring in the film and I know for a fact that film would not have happened without her advocacy.
Q: Jessica, your wife of 18 years, with whom you have you have four children, ironically plays a member of the white racist nobility, Lady Lilly Canning, in A United Kingdom. Have you experienced the racism depicted in A United Kingdom yourself?
DO: No. Certainly not to the degree that we see in the film, but I’m very aware of the fact that there are more people than we would care to admit who are opposed to the idea of interracial marriage and that’s partly why that story, in my opinion, is still very prescient, very relevant... Still I think what movies do at their best is entertain. They hold a mirror up to our own lives, to our own cultures, to our own prejudices. The main thing about A United Kingdom is that these two people fell in love. That was it.
"I’m very aware of the fact that there are more people than we would care to admit who are opposed to the idea of interracial marriage and that’s partly why that story, in my opinion, is still very prescient, very relevant..."
Q: Do you typically pursue movies directed by women?
DO: Absolutely, I do, I do. A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe were part of a run of four films where I had all female directors. I produced two of the four films, A United Kingdom and Five Nights in Maine, so I pursued those directors. But it was Ava DuVernay who I really fought for to be the one to direct Selma and Maris Curran directed Five Nights in Maine which we developed together. I’d worked with Amma 18 years ago when she was a writer on the BBC series, Brothers and Sisters, which was one of my first jobs out of drama school. So I really wanted her to direct A United Kingdom because I know the perspective behind the camera dictates what it is.
You know, you’re doing a love story. It’s not as if I’m berating men for not necessarily being the first to go towards emotion. But the truth of the matter is women are more ready to explore emotion and to be unapologetic about the romantic, sweeping love story and I wanted that, as opposed to a film that could get bogged down by politics.
So it is absolutely intentional and I think that’s the only way this thing is going to change. When you’re drawing up a director list for projects, 50 per cent of the names on that list have to be female. Unless you do that, it’s not going to change, because if all the decision makers are men, they’re hiring their buddies or guys who look like them.
"If all the decision makers are men, they’re hiring their buddies or guys who look like them"
Amma Asante - Director
A British-born filmmaker of Ghanaian parentage, Asante, like Oyelowo, is in an interracial marriage. She met her Danish husband, Soren Pedersen, when she went to interview him in his capacity as a spokesman for European police in The Hague. She drew on her own love-at-first-sight relationship when making A United Kingdom, which is set in the 1940s when interracial marriages were not as accepted as they are today.
The film follows Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, the former British protectorate we now know as Botswana, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) a lowly British clerk. They fought tooth and nail for their relationship, which endured right up until Khama’s death in 1980, by which time he had become the country’s first President. Their son Ian is Botswana’s current President.
HB: How did the film come about?
Amma Asante: Six years ago, David read Susan Williams’ book 'Colour Bar' and saw an African story about an African leader he’d never heard of. Many South Africans knew about it, but we in England didn't and we do feel like we should have a better knowledge given that we’re children of Africa, even if once removed. So it was about not having heard of the story being told before, but also about David having a great role to play.
HB: Is it important to take control of your own stories?
AA: It’s not just about taking control in the sense that we take them out of the hands of other people, but that we share in being able to tell our stories. There’s a great argument about ownership and I don't believe anybody should have ownership of stories. My first film (2004’s A Way of Life) was about a bunch of white teenagers growing up in south Wales. I’ve never lived in Wales, I’m not white and I’ve never lived in that kind of poverty, but I’ve never wanted anyone to say to me, “You’re black, you can’t tell that story.”
"It’s about how long you’re willing to keep trying. You have to ignore the obstacles because if you take them into account you just would never get out of bed."
HB: Given the #OscarsSoWhite debate, how difficult has it been for you to be heard in your career?
AA: You don't need anecdotal stories to realise there’s an issue. I mean the statistics show that there is an issue and oftentimes when we bring up the issue of being a woman, and a female director, we don't even register as one per cent. I know that in the ten years between my first and second movies, male directors had made at least two movies in that time. We know that it takes longer to get our movies off the ground, we know that less money is put into the marketing of our films, despite the fact that women’s films do pretty well at be box office, often beating their male counterparts.
It’s been hard but what I do with every movie now, is I make sure that I mentor a young female through the process. On my next movie I’ll have four, and what I say to them is if you’re a person of colour as well, it's a time game as to how quickly you can pick yourself up and compose yourself after adversity hits. So it’s about how long you’re willing to keep trying. You have to ignore the obstacles because if you take them into account you just would never get out of bed.
Watch on SBS World Movies Wednesday March 11 at 9:15PM (available at SBS On Demand after broadcast).
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