David Oyelowo, the star of the new movie A United Kingdom, which is currently playing in limited release, is a man of many interests. He just came off a Broadway stint starring opposite Daniel Craig in Othello; he spent six years getting his current film into theaters and he has chosen to spend his time following his acclaimed turn as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma starring in films for female directors. Says his frequent collaborator Ava DuVernay: “He won’t take a role that he doesn’t believe paints a bolder picture of black masculinity, and he’s empowering women by supporting their films, by being their star.”
We sat down with Oyelowo ahead of his film’s opening. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you dedicate so much time to getting A United Kingdom made
DAVID OYELOWO: Until producer Justin More Louie and his partner Charlie Mason handed me the book The Colour Bar about Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth Wilson, I had never heard the story. (Khama was the heir to the throne in Botswana and he put it all in jeopardy when he fell in love and married the white British office worker Ruth Wilson. Their union caused an international scandal that involved Botswana, Great Britain, and South Africa.)
The minute I knew the story, I thought how did I not know it before. It’s such a big story. It’s a love story. It spans continents and it’s big in scope. When I found out about this story and built up enough notoriety, I felt it was incumbent upon me to make it so another generation doesn’t go without knowing this story.
Why did it take so long to get it made?
No one was interested in seeing me play the lead in the movie. No one was interested in a black African protagonist. There was no white American journalist who you could crowbar into the piece to tell the story through their eyes. Any other narrative you’ve seen in the last 20-25 years where you have a transcendent male African character, there is always a white male actor who comes along and holds their hand through their story. He either saves them or makes it palatable. The industry is just so riddled with fear.
So what made the difference?
Selma changed everything. I guess people saw that I could do that which they weren’t sure I could do.
RELATED VIDEO: David Oyelowo On His New Film, A United Kingdom
How did Amma Asante come aboard?
I made a pivot. When all these white male directors were telling me no, I realized we were approaching these guys not because of what they would do with this but because of who they are. And I had seen on Selma (with director DuVernay) that who gets to tell the story matters. Ava changed the script of Selma and changed what that film would have been. I didn’t necessarily think [A United Kingdom] had to be directed by a woman of color but I wanted it to be a woman. With so few women allowed to tell stories, we are being robbed of a certain perspective which in my opinion is more emotional — and I mean that in the best sense. I had a front row seat to Ava’s perspective on Selma and I just thought, I need more of this. I have to cultivate this. I’m a better actor for being under this gaze.
Were you expecting a different response career-wise after Selma?
Look when you play a role like Dr. King in a film that gains that kind of notoriety as a white actor, it’s different. It’s a genuine opportunity for promotion. You don’t have to look to far to see that for black actors who have that opportunity, it doesn’t lead to what I would deem commensurate opportunities. Are you going to get to do a Captain Fantastic? Are you going to get to do La La Land? Are you going to get to do Fantastic Beasts? You can be the guy who helps Eddie Redmayne get to his destination or I can cobble the money together to do a $15 million movie so I can keep this thing going.
And it’s not about let me try and be a movie star. It’s just if I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem.
How do you think this philosophy is impacting your career?
I’m enriched by the experience. I love Queen of Katwe. I love that black men and white men have come up to me and said, “I just saw that film and I just wanted to hug my daughter. I just wanted to be a better father. It made me want to go to Uganda.” For me, this medium is so powerful and for a period of time, I have just enough collateral to create that which I am moved by, what I deem meaningful. We are not promised tomorrow and I’m not promised a long career but for now, people are interested in what I have to do. And who gets to tell the story is very important to me. The audience deserves to see images of people of color that are commensurate with the reality of life her on planet Earth.