David Oyelowo Talks 'A United Kingdom,' #OscarSoWhite, and Why He Seeks Out Female Directors

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
David Oyelowo (Getty Images)

David Oyelowo is one of the most insightful ambassadors for inclusion in the film industry. Oyelowo rose to fame in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma (a role many believed deserved an Oscar nomination and helped launch the #OscarsSoWhite backlash); at the same time, he publicly bemoaned the lack of black men in British productions. He is also a vocal advocate for female filmmakers.

As he was breaking through in Selma, the Oxford native born to Nigerian parents was in the lengthy process of developing A United Kingdom. The film is the illuminating true story of King Seretse Khama, a Botswanian royal who married white Briton Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) in the 1940s; their coupling was condemned by both the English government and its small African colony, resulting in his exile from what was then known as Bechuanaland in 1951.

Oyelowo, 41, sought out a female director (Belle‘s Amma Assante). In fact, four of his last five films (A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe, Five Nights in Maine, and Selma) have been directed by women, and that isn’t a coincidence. He talked to Yahoo Movies about United Kingdom (now on DVD/Blu-ray and Digital HD) and more in the candid interview below.

Yahoo Movies: This is probably a poor comparison, but I couldn’t help thinking A United Kingdom felt like a dramatic counterpart to Coming to America. In the beginning, anyway.
David Oyelowo:
No, that’s not strange at all. I love Coming to America! But obviously that’s a silly version of the story. I hope Eddie Murphy wouldn’t be offended with me calling it silly. But it’s light fare, whereas this really happened and had a huge impact on Botswana, and was a massive event in U.K. politics post-WWII. And it’s about a true place. Zamunda is fictional [laughs].

But I think, to keep on with that comparison, the great thing about A United Kingdom is that it shows a side of African life that we very rarely get to see. You see a great leader who was genuinely concerned with his people. And it’s a success story. You see a love story that played across two continents and three countries. And you see an African man and an African leader who is in the driving seat of his own destiny. These are things that you rarely see, cinematic speaking.

Is this a story that was largely known in the U.K.?
No, it’s not largely known anywhere, even in Botswana. Because as a result of being a colony, that history was kind of buried, as unfortunately can be the case with one country ruling over another for a time that basically can recalibrate the history. So that was one of the pleasures and one of the joys of telling this story, it’s one where when you read about it, when you find about it, you can’t believe you didn’t know about it, let alone the rest of the world. And that was definitely the driver for me in terms of fighting to get the film made.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in ‘A United Kingdom’

Has the response you’ve received to the film been different in the U.S. vs. U.K.?
I think there’s a feeling of regret in the U.K. that these things happened to these people. And it’s a great thing because a lot people I’ve spoken to, considering the times we now live in, it’s a reminder of the vigilance we need to continue to have in relation to what governments subject different people to.

How do you think this story does relate to the times we now live in?
Well, intolerance — and racial intolerance, specifically — is still very much with us, and that of course was the driver for wanting to keep these two people apart. The fact that something as basic and universal as love ended up being what enabled them to overcome the circumstances they were in, the governmental pressures they were under, and the cultural pressures they were facing as well, is I think a beautiful example of what is possible… It’s going to take a determined attitude of love to overcome some of the really dark and dangerous things we’re seeing happen on our planet right now.

Have you and your wife [Jessica Oyelowo] had to endure the type of intolerance we see portrayed in the film?
When my wife, who is white, and I happened upon this story, the overriding effect it had on us was feeling very fortunate that we were living in a different era than they did. Because we haven’t experienced anything the likes of what they have experienced. But we’re not naïve to the fact that there are places we go where the tolerance levels drop in relation to us as a couple. But there’s [been] nothing overt. But there are places that we largely avoid where people have a real problem.

In Britain or—
Everywhere. We know for a fact that there are states in the United States where the tolerance levels drop. And there are definitely parts of the U.K. where that is the case as well. And within the hearts of certain individuals — they made not overtly express it, but under given circumstances you can feel it. Certainly, there are instances where it has been expressed vocally and people have had to talk about their awful experiences. But I see Ruth and Seretse as being very ahead of their time in terms of what they were prepared to endure for their love and a great example of how to overcome it.

Jessica is in this film, but she plays more of an antagonist, while your Seretse is head over heels in love with Rosamund Pike’s Ruth. That had to be an odd experience, falling into a romantic screen relationship while your actual wife is right there?
Well, not only is it odd, but it’s doubly odd when your real-life wife is playing someone is a racist and who cannot stand the idea of a black man and a white woman being together [laughs]. We had one scene in particular where Rosamund, as written, puts her hand on my hand as an expression of affection that Jessica has to witness. And the camera cuts to her and it looks like she throws up a little bit in her mouth as that happens. And for my money, she does that a little too well. But I like it was because another woman, generally, was touching her husband, not because she had fully embraced the racist qualities of her character [laughs]. No, but we love working together. We met doing youth theater together and it was a real privilege to be a part of a film that means a lot to both of us for obvious reasons.

Jessica Oyelowo and David Oyelowo (Getty Images)

Around the release of Selma you said that was there was a serious shortage of leading roles for black men in British period pieces. This film was produced in Britain. Have you seen any progress since?
Well, if I didn’t put the film on my back, and sort of pummel away for six to seven years, A United Kingdom wouldn’t exist. And there are not many films like it in the ether. So I can’t really speak to what’s coming down the pike, pardon the pun, but I know that there isn’t exactly an avalanche of these kind of films and opportunities. But the ability to construct opportunities for yourself has increased. There are many ways of displaying your work now, and it doesn’t just have to be in a movie theater. There are many more avenues. But it’s still a struggle.

Were you as frustrated or upset as a lot of us that Selma was so overlooked by the Oscars?
It’s now two years on and I have a lot of hindsight. In many ways I think more people ended up seeing the film because of what it didn’t get than what people thought it should’ve got. I think that people just got curious. What’s all the noise? What’s #OscarSoWhite? What is this so-called injustice that has happened to this film? And I now can’t go anywhere without people having seen that film. So at the end of the day, you could argue that the film did exactly what it was supposed to do. Me having a trinket on a shelf somewhere doesn’t validate or eviscerate any of that.

And so, look, the byproducts of it continue to go on and on. I don’t think A United Kingdom would’ve gotten made without Selma. What Ava DuVernay is doing by way of her amazing work, Selma was a launch pad for that. Selma gave birth to #OscarsSoWhite, which then had a two-year run, and I think it has brought about discernible change since that black eye, so we shall, on our industry. So there are things that come out of it that far exceed anything that I think nominations or even Oscars would have given us.

Do you feel like Moonlight‘s Oscars win, and other wins by folks like Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis, will help turn the page on #OscarsSoWhite?
I think we have for now. I personally think a huge amount of vigilance has to be employed in relation to thinking that that chapter in Hollywood history is over. Because the infrastructure that enabled two years of #OscarsSoWhite — and forget even #OscarsSoWhite, that still allows for such an underrepresentation of women, of Hispanic people, of Asian people, let alone black people — that is very much still in place. We still do not have enough representations on film what society actually looks like. So yes, it was a nice pendulum swing, but we’ve seen that in the past. What we need is more than a moment. We need a true movement that sticks. And only time will tell if that is indeed the case.

David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma’ (Paramount)

Well speaking of the underrepresentation of women, four of your last five films have been made by female directors. Are you consciously seeking out women behind the camera?
Very conscious. I was very keen on Ava DuVernay for Selma and really beat that drum. Amma Assante was someone I targeted for A United Kingdom. I knew Amma, I thought what she did with Belle as a film was truly beautiful and was the kind of voice we needed for A United Kingdom. I did a film called Five Nights in Maine with a filmmaker called Maris Curran. It was a film I produced, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do that film was because I felt that she was a great new female voice. And Mira Nair was just a wonderful invitation to be a part of Queen of Katwe. And yes, not only being a woman but a person of color who has lived in Uganda for 25 years, so she really knows what she’s talking about in relation to that African culture. That was very meaningful to me, because as I say, we’ve had several representations on film of Africa that have been an outsider’s perspective, and it’s not to say that those films aren’t valid, but we need some of the other. We need to see what it feels like from within, because I do that that is a more rich and authentic take than just an outside perspective.

I don’t know yet if we can say it’s a turning point, but it does feel like 2017 is becoming a great year for female directors. You look at Patty Jenkins breaking records with Wonder Woman. Ava Duvernay has A Wrinkle in Time coming out with Disney. Kathryn Bigelow has Detroit on the horizon. And there are some really notable new indies out now, like The Beguiled [Sofia Coppola], The Bad Batch [Ana Lily Amirpour], and Band Aid [Zoe Lister-Jones], which was shot with an all-female crew.
I agree. My thing is just vigilance. I remember when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars in the same year and there being a feeling that we had turned a corner, historically. And we hadn’t. I remember when 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Mandela were all films that had black male protagonists at their center. And that feeling like it was a renaissance, as it was being called, and then it was followed by two years of #OscarsSoWhite.

I think that it’s worth acknowledging these moments, but as it pertains to female directors, you’re still running at a catastrophic deficit when you think that the population is 51 percent female, and only 7 percent of the top 250 films shot in 2015 were directed by women. That’s inexcusable. So it’s wonderful that all of those films are happening, and I saw Wonder Woman the other day and you don’t often say this about a superhero movie, but that’s an important movie that I think 10 years, 20 years from now, people are still going to be looking at as hopefully, a corner turned. But not just because it was directed by a woman, but because it’s actually about something as opposed to just being eye candy. You really come away from it having your mental senses tickled. And I think that does partly have to do with that female perspective that isn’t just interested in explosions.

A United Kingdom is now on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD. Watch the trailer:


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