David Oyelowo: ‘The UK wasn’t ready for a black leading man’

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David Oyelowo (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)
David Oyelowo (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

In the Britain-to-Hollywood pipeline of acting talents that have turned careers honed on stage and the BBC into American stardom, David Oyelowo is as prolific as you can get while remaining something of a hidden treasure. In the early 2000s, he kept us on the edge of our seats as tough but empathetic Danny Hunter in the spy drama Spooks and was a pioneer of colour-blind casting in major historical drama when he played Henry VI at the RSC.

Since heading to the US, he’s won plaudits for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr in the black civil rights memoir Selma; played opposite George Clooney last year in The Midnight Sky, a Netflix number about environmental catastrophe; and channelled romance and power play in A United Kingdom — the story of a mixed-race relationship after the Second World War between an Englishwoman and the heir to the throne in Botswana.

When Oyelowo hovers into view from LA for our interview, he looks remarkably chilled for a man who sounds like he is going for the “hardest-working Brit in Hollywood” award — with a new family-friendly film out on Disney, The Water Man, and a contract to make more family entertainment for the channel.

“I have four children, and four dogs, and they all are very hungry so I’ve got to stay busy,” he says. “I love telling stories. I’m passionate about the impact and the effects storytelling has on society. I’m trying to do as much ‘good damage’ as I can!”

The Water Man is about a geeky boy struggling with his mother’s cancer diagnosis, who searches for a mythical figure who possesses the secret to immortality. It’s a mix of adventure and the painful challenges life can throw at us, from childhood onwards. Oyelowo acts as well as directs.

David Oyelowo in The Water Man with Lonnie Chavis and Rosario Dawson (Karen Ballard/Netflix)
David Oyelowo in The Water Man with Lonnie Chavis and Rosario Dawson (Karen Ballard/Netflix)

Oprah Winfrey is a friend and the two often collaborate on projects — her company executive-produced Oyelowo’s latest film. It’s winsome, uplifting fare, bolted on to a superhero quest — a departure for a man who played ebullient, big-name characters. “There were a few folks who were a bit surprised as to this choice of directorial debut,” he admits. “But I had loved these kinds of [family] films growing up. ET was a formative film for me, as it was for so many of my generation.”

Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)
Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

Oyelowo was born in Oxford and then lived in Tooting until he was six, when his family moved back to Nigeria and he went to boarding school. They returned to London when he was 14, living in Islington. He went to arts college and the National Youth theatre, discovering acting when a teacher spotted him and invited him to audition, and finally trained at Lamda.

He has talked previously about the racism his parents faced as Nigerian immigrants, not so much about his own experience. Is he satisfied that the film industry is getting more opportunity for people of colour? “I’m far from satisfied,” he says. “There are signs that there is an openness and genuine change but we need more equality and advances super-fast.”

His departure from Spooks, he reveals, was led by his belief that he was being constrained in the role by his race. “There was a clear moment where I think if my colour was different, I would have been elevated to be the lead on that show. The choice was made to not take that opportunity.”

If he’s furious about this, it comes across as a considered reflection rather than a rant. It must be rewarding to prove drama commissioners wrong by building an even more prominent and lucrative career in America.

“We were still in a time where inherent bias, unconscious bias was driving a lot of the decision making. I came to America and was able to prove that I could be a leading man. It was subtly said to me that the audience wasn’t ready for someone like me to take that role. I just knew that wasn’t true. And the only place I saw evidence of that not being true was in Hollywood.”

He credits Selma with starting a wave of protests about how white the Oscars were. “In the year that Selma came out, there were 20 opportunities to nominate actors of colour and none of them were taken. That happened two years in a row. And it was the participation of the public [that changed this].” Was this progress or just the studios becoming fearful of their reputations?

He sighs, “I don’t credit Hollywood with any real change or desire for it, you know that those decisions are driven by money, or they’re driven by the audience saying, ‘we will no longer vote with our eyeballs or our money unless you change’.” Through the production company he runs with his wife, fellow actress Jessica Oyelowo (who he met on the London youth theatre circuit), he is working on changing the representation of black people on screen.

“I was very passionate about the idea of the family at the centre of this narrative being a black family,” he says. “Because even though I love those films I mentioned earlier, when I was younger, I was never reflected in them.”

When I say that the subject matter — the impending death of a parent and the random chance of when it occurs — might seem a bit testing, he shoots back: “It’s not as extreme as you might think. You know, my mum passed away four years ago, having had a brain aneurysm, and she was in a vegetative state for three years before. Whether you’re four or 40 it doesn’t really alter that much in terms of the effect it has on you and your desire to save them. We are coming out of the pandemic, a time in which there is almost not a single person who hasn’t, in some way, been affected by the theme of illness, death.”

Yoruba Saxon, Oyelowo’s company, has a major deal with Disney for “values-based content” which the cynic in me wonders might be one of those evanescent buzz-phrases to get a big name to sign up to a deal. He is, however, fully in earnest about the idea of changing the menu on our screens to be enjoyable but more wholesome. “A lot of entertainment is very disposable and is vacuous and is about those two hours when you have the audience’s attention but there’s no real meaning behind it,” he says.

I get the impression that repetitive film franchises don’t cut much ice with Oyelowo. “Hollywood has lost its way. So when you have Marvel (the lucrative superhero franchise), for instance, who are doing a pretty good job of corralling my kids’ attention, they are bleeding that sort of treasure chest for all it’s worth until the wheels fall off.”

He’s unusual, in an entertainment business whose default mode is secular, even suspicious of religion, in being open about the role of religion in his life — the film ends with an image of family at prayer — not one often found on screen these days without an undertone of cynicism.

In a context of an America still unhappily trying to reconcile modern liberal values with the deep roots of religious faith, he acknowledges that the focus can be controversial. “Let me distinguish between a conservative, politicised version of Christianity which has been co-opted by politics — that has nothing to do with my belief system or even the Bible, I would argue. And then there is experiential Christianity that is steeped in a relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship with God and sacrificial love. That’s something anyone everyone can admire outside the politicised version of Christianity, and that’s what I live my life by.”

The perennial subject of the next James Bond after his friend Daniel Craig hangs up his gun airs. Would he fancy a go? “Well it’s either me or Idris [Elba]!” he jokes (or possibly it’s not quite a joke — he’s smiling so mischievously it’s difficult to tell). “I’m not in a hurry to play Bond, because, you know, I’m really looking to continue to ring the changes as much as possible. Never say never, because it’s silly to say that, and then two years from now, I’m playing Bond, and you’re playing this recording back to me...”For now though, he says he wants to “keep pushing the envelope so that the world looks different than I found it when I was 12, watching films on VHS, loving them but not seeing myself represented.”

Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist and host of The Economist Asks podcast. Her full interview can be heard at economist.com/podcasts/2021/07/15/we-ask-david-oyelowo-does-hollywood-need-new-stories

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