David Oyelowo has appeared in so many prominent Hollywood films in the last decade—from The Last King of Scotland, to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to his career-defining turn as Martin Luther King in Selma—that American audiences may have begun to consider him their own. But as his many recent press interviews attest, he is a Brit, with the accent to prove it.
Over the weekend, at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Oyelowo criticized the Academy for a history of favoring black characters who are “subservient,” rather than black characters who are the heroes of their own narrative. In a new interview with Radio Times, he lamented that Great Britain’s film industry failed to reflect the country’s diversity in their movies, forcing many black British actors to go to America for greater opportunities. “We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years,” he said. “There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in L.A. We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call the Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the 50th iteration of Pride and Prejudice. We’re not in those. And it’s frustrating because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.”
Oyelowo has said all this before, and isn’t the only person to recognize Britain’s shortcomings in this area. Benedict Cumberbatch told PBS’s Tavis Smiley, “I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change.” (Controversy over Cumberbatch’s use of the term “colored” overshadowed the more important issue at hand, and he swiftly apologized.)
Joanna Read, principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which claims both Oyelowo and Cumberbatch as alums, is also keenly aware that British film needs to be more inclusive. “We’ve been concerned in the U.K. about a number of our really good black British actors, who are coming over to the States because the parts and the opportunities are not available for them in the U.K.” she says. “It’s brilliant that the parts are available in the States, but I think it’s a concern for the U.K. that they’re not addressing diversity in the work.”