Q&A with David Oyelowo: A United Kingdom
What drew you to this role in A United Kingdom?
As a person of African descent, I like to think that African history is something I’m up on. When I happened upon this one, I just couldn’t believe I didn’t know of this story and I couldn’t quite understand why. Because its scale, its scope — the ramifications — the legacy of Botswana and the love between these two people from two completely different cultures and countries. There was so much about it that caught my attention and, as a result, made me feel strongly that I just had do it.
What did you have to study to look at what that struggle looked like for Black people in the UK versus what we dealt with in the U.S.?
In many of the films I’ve done here in the States, whether it’s The Butler, Red Tails, The Help, Lincoln or even Selma, I had to really research that. Because it’s not my history and it’s not what I necessarily grew up knowing by way of college. When it comes to British history and how Black people have been cheated and mistreated, it’s something I’m far more up on because being born there — I live most of my life there — I live here now in the States. Great Britain’s history, I was far more conscious of — in many ways, I’ve done it the wrong way around because of the American films.
Being born in the UK, but being of Nigerian descent, I lived in Nigeria for seven years and Nigeria was a colony of Great Britain, and I could see the legacy of Nigeria being a colony by living there. What you see in the UK is very much what happened up and down Africa, through to a lot of those countries gaining their independence, which is mistreatment. One of the saving graces for Botswana was at the time where this story was unfolding, Botswana was the second-poorest country in the world.
They hadn’t discovered diamonds yet when they were so awfully treated.
I would argue that if it was a country rich in resources, they would’ve been treated worse. Botswana wouldn’t be just a protector of the UK, it would be a colony and it would’ve been raped of its resources; therefore, the collateral damage that British reps represented, they would’ve been treated far worse. What you see in the film is a very real depiction of what happened up and down that continent.
I was not aware of this story until this film, and I’m sure there are similar stories in terms of the rich history of Africa and the key people who played a major role.
What are some of the things that you felt that needed to be brought out in this role — delivering this great story? What’s the message that you tried to emulate?
You have an opportunity in a way that hopefully doesn’t feel corny to illustrate the power of love and how that love between two people — who just happened to be from different countries, different cultures — are a potent force that enables them to stay together as a couple but went on to win. When it came to the opposition that they were being saved from government countries, continents, what they overcame through their determination to be together is extraordinary. They could’ve decided, “This is too hard, let’s get a divorce.” Everyone would be seemingly happy. He could go be king of his country and her parents won’t disown her and folks won’t be calling her a ”whore” in the streets — let’s get on with their lives. But they chose to stay together, and Botswana is a better country for the fact that these two people fought for their love. Botswana considers itself a “post-racial” nation till this day because of the marriage and the legacy. For a country that shares the border of South Africa to not recognize race is extraordinary, and that was love borne out of two people.
Did you have to travel to Botswana for film location shoots?
Yes, we made the choice to film in Botswana. There was very real temptation to shoot it in South Africa because South Africa has more of a filmmaking infrastructure than Botswana. We’re the very first feature film to shoot in Botswana. Even though that’s a great thing, it comes with its challenges — it was absolutely the best decision. There was so much gain for being in the place where the events took place. We could shoot in the very house where King Seretse Khama and Ruth lived in. Those are the very same rooms where they habited when they were alive. The hospital where Ruth gives birth is where the real Ruth gives birth to their first child. That just adds an extra layer of authenticity that money just completely cannot buy.
The roles over the last few films that we’ve seen have been inspired by real-life characters. Who is the real David Oyelowo?
The choices I make as an actor reflect who the real David is. I was drawn to UK because I’m a shameless romantic myself, but I’m also a Black man of African descent who is very proud of my heritage. Therefore, whether it’s UK or Queen of Katwe, I want to see films that show Black masculinity, and I see it and live it. I’ve been brought up by a father who loved me deeply and raised me to love. I see a lot of my father in Robert Katende who I played in Queen of Katwe, I see a lot of my father in Seretse Karma, I see men who I aspire to be like — whether it’s love for his wife or Robert Katende’s advocacy for those young people who love chess. That’s what I hope and try to raise my children, and I like to think of myself as someone who is socially responsible and that’s reflected in the church that I make playing Dr. King in Selma. That’s a man I completely admire for his self-sacrifice, for not just his people but for people generally.
It’s embedded in the roles that I play tend to be faucets that I either admire as a man myself or I’m drawn to because of my experiences of the world — often the fact that I see a real lack of that experience being depicted on the screen.
Who influenced you coming up — you mentioned your father, but who influenced you in the professional arena? Also, what are you doing to influence those coming up behind you both personally and professionally?
Two big influences on me is Oprah Winfrey. She’s a huge mentor of mine — she’s a mother figure to me in my life. The advice she’s given me has been invaluable, in the choices I’ve made when I met when we played mother and son in The Butler. She is someone who I deeply love as a human being and as a big part of my life. Ava DuVernay, who is like a sister to me, who directed both in Middle of Nowhere and Selma, someone is such a kindred spirit when it comes to how we see the world through what we do and the effects we hope it has. Those two are very big influences in my life.
What I’m hoping to do by way of influence and example to actors of color, coming up — the representation of us on-screen — the nature of the roles we play and the nature of the stories we choose to tell matters. It influences culture, wrongly or rightly. Influences the perception of who we are and if we make a mistake of perpetuating stereotypes and caricatures, I feel that it sets us back. The way to break down prejudices is to engineer understanding, and I think that is going to be borne of ensuring a more complex representation, especially of Black masculinity, which I think has been boxed in ways that are problematic. There’s a constant depiction of criminality, or being subjugated or only being celebrated as musicians or sports stars. That’s a part of who we are, but we are so much more.
I do think that culture is influenced by the depiction of us in movies and TV, so I try to acknowledge that in the roles that I play. I’m trying as much as I can to be an advocate of female filmmakers because I think the female point of view is being short-changed in movies. By God’s grace, half the population is female, and that’s a point of view that is half of humanity — as in A United Kingdom, Selma or Queen of Katwe — all directed by not just women, but women of color. Those films would be different if they were made by a man or a white man, which is often the way those films get told. I think their voice and their view of the world is very necessary for us to have a full view of who we are as human beings.