As David Oyelowo and I spoke by phone recently, a protest against Donald Trump’s immigration ban was raging outside his New York hotel. It seemed fitting, because his new film, A United Kingdom, centres on a family who’s kept apart by governmental prejudice.
It also seemed like déjà vu. Two years ago, when Oyelowo was in a similar New York hotel promoting Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s battle for civil rights (he played King), a similar civil action was occurring under his window, to support Black Lives Matter.
“It’s an extraordinary thing,” Oyelowo says, in a British-accented voice as rich as butter on lobster. “My films are speaking to the exact situation that’s happening on the street, even though Selma took place 50 years ago, and A United Kingdom 70 years ago. There is some evidence that society has moved forward. But when it comes to prejudice, it comes back around in different packaging. I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to move forward from that.”
He does know how he wants to contribute: Born in Oxford, England, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and then schooled back in England, Oyelowo is determined to make films “that speak to my experience,” he says. “There are so many things that I know to be true, and I very rarely get to see in movies.” So in 2010, when a producer friend gave him Susan Williams’s book Colour Bar, he found himself pulled into producing as well as acting.
The book, and ultimately A United Kingdom, tells the true story of Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), a prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) who fell in love with a white office worker, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), in 1948, while a student in England. Despite their families’ objections, they married and moved to Africa. The British government, which gave financial aid to Bechuanaland, also opposed the marriage: Britain was in bed with South Africa, South Africa was instituting apartheid and the British didn’t want an embarrassment just across the border. The Brits lured Khama to England to negotiate, then forbade him from returning. Ruth knew if she left, she also would never return. Director Amma Asante (Belle) focuses on the love story and lets history swirl around it.
Oyelowo – who happens to come from a royal family himself – was “desperate to see it made,” he says, “because we almost never get to see a man like Seretse at the centre of his own narrative. A man who’s madly in love. A leader who really cares about his people – as opposed to being corrupt – in a story that demonstrates the beauty of an African people, and their complexity.”
Africa is rife with incredible stories, incredible people, Oyelowo continues, but too often in film, those stories are told from an outsider perspective, in terms of who directs it and who the protagonist is. “If you’re only seeing African or black characters from an outsider perspective, then inevitably it’s going to be a less dimensional representation of who we are than it otherwise should be,” he says. “Even if it’s a positive story, it diminishes the import of people within their own cultures and communities. If we only get one demographic’s view on every situation, it’s going to be a distorted representation of who we are in terms of humanity.”
His becoming a producer was “born out of necessity.” Despite his considerable elegance, evident talent and steadily rising star – from Britain’s National Youth Theatre to a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, from a starring role on the British series MI-5 to working with American directors Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels – it took several years of “pummelling away” before he could get A United Kingdom financed. He vividly recalls meeting with a director who refused to make the film if Oyelowo was in it. “It would not be politic for me to mention who it is,” Oyelowo says, smiling, “but it’s a prominent person, who will read this article, and I hope be thoroughly ashamed.”
Eventually, he prevailed and, in a fulfilling moment, found himself standing on a London street wearing 1940s clothes, surrounded by period automobiles. “Having grown up in the U.K., I love a period drama,” he says. “Merchant Ivory films, Austin and Dickens movies. But I never got to see someone who looked like me in any of them, even though black people have very much been a part of British history, and not just recent history.
“So to be shooting those scenes in foggy Whitehall, with its beautiful buildings and our huge production values – all those things I’d grown up seeing in films that didn’t have any black people in them – and to be the protagonist, there were several moments I felt the need to pinch myself. I was living out a dream I had harboured for a long time.”
Oyelowo lives in California’s San Fernando Valley with his wife, actress Jessica Oyelowo, their four children and three dogs. “It takes a lot to get me out of the house,” he says. “I’m quite happy to stay home, spending time with my family, unplugging drains and picking up dog mess.”
That sounds a tad disingenuous, considering his slate of upcoming projects, which includes Americanah, based on Chimamanda Adichie’s novel about Nigerian immigrants in the United States, co-starring Lupita Nyong’o; American Express, an action film opposite Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron; God Particle, the third instalment in the Cloverfield franchise, from producer J. J. Abrams; and several ideas in development with DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. Oyelowo calls the latter two “some of the most amazing, informative relationships I’ve forged as an actor and as a human being.”
He’ll also be a presenter at Sunday’s Academy Awards and has some thoughts about #OscarsSoWhite. “What we celebrate culturally matters – awards signal to the world what we deem to be of import,” Oyelowo says. “The actors who get nominated and the nature of the characters they get to play are a demonstration of what we value as a society. So for me, it is important that the Oscars represent the society we actually live in. I remain very disturbed by the lack of women in the Hollywood industry, both in terms of awards, and more importantly, in the director’s chair.”
Those protests outside? Oyelowo’s internalized them. Yet, as an avowed Christian, he believes right will prevail. “While we were making A United Kingdom, there’s no way we could have predicted how relevant those scenes and images of a man being banned from returning to his country would be for an audience in 2017,” he says. “But it shows us the power of love. Courageous love, sacrificial love. Regardless of whether the opposition is governmental, societal, political or familial, love can win.”Report Typo/Error
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