Pronouncing David Oyetokunbo Oyelowo’s name might be a bit of a tongue twister, but I’m afraid you won’t be able to avoid pronouncing his name any longer. Rumour has it that his newest film A United Kingdom will be another Oscar Contender.
Most famously known for his convincing performances in Selma, The Butler, Interstellar, Lincoln, Captive, The Queen of Katwe, Nightingale (to name a few), Oyelowo has proven to be an incredibly believable and diverse actor and storyteller.
Besides his ability to bring characters to life, his choice of projects and his efforts behind the screen show he is a man of conviction and integrity. He fights to tell stories of humanity that are worth telling and through it he is an advocate for diversity and equality.
Whether that is through playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, the orphaned chess coach Robert Katende in The Queen of Katwe, a rebellious Louis Gaines who ultimately reconciles with his father (The Butler) or portraying Brian Nichols (Captive), a murderer who finds redemption through a 7-hour encounter with his Meth-addicted hostage, his stories (most often based on true events) never leave the audience unchallenged.
Important to him are the part, people and project when choosing a film. “If the part speaks to me, great, if the project feels like it is worthy of being told to the audience, and the people I get to work with.”
Before being cast for the role of Dr. King in Selma, Oyelowo recalls, “I turned down a lot of easier opportunities in order to go for the things that I really and ultimately wanted to do. And what’s really nice is that it’s starting to work.”
His newest passion project, A United Kingdom is probably the best representation of him as a person and what he stands for.
It depicts the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) who falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a British office worker while studying in London in 1948. Their relationship is not only opposed by Williams’ father, but by Seretse’s family, his people, as well as the British and South African government.
His wife and mother of their four children, Jessica Oleyowo, also stars in this film. She expounds: “the heart of this story is that love can overcome anything, and what moves me is the idea that two people who fell in love and refuse to compromise on that love literally changed the world, I mean literally changed the world. […]These two people didn’t just love one another, they loved their people. And Botswana is one of the biggest success stories you’ll ever see in Africa – it’s remarkable.”
Not only is the story close to his heart, but the whole collective effort to make this movie mirrors his convictions: from having a female director (Amma Asante), a multi-racial cast and crew, to the representation of both Africa and Europe. It is also one of few movies about Africa in which the story is not just told from the perspective of a white protagonist, but a balance between both.
Oleyowo identifies himself as both a proud Nigerian and Brit, hence his passion for equality and diversity. He was born in the UK but lived in Nigeria from the age of 6-13. After his three-year training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, his acting career began on stage with a season at the Royal Shakespeare Company that gained him critical praise before going into film and television.
When asked about the importance of telling stories like that of Seretse Khama, he responded,
“I think it’s evident that we as a society have certainly not overcome prejudice and overcome racial injustice. And so films like this point to how far we’ve come but also how far we still need to go.”
Oyelowo also loves to support stories that redeem the negative view of Africa, such as ‘The Queen of Katwe’:
“As an African myself I have been irritated by some of the depictions of us I’ve seen in big movies. It’s not to take away the validation of them, the negative side of life in Africa is a truism but it’s not the entirety. Not everything about us is child soldiers and corruption and dictatorship and genocide […]. We have stories that have universal themes even though they are set in specific places. And that’s what I really loved about this story.”
While Oleyowo is known as a representative for diversity, at heart, he is a storyteller.
Introducing his speech at the BFI Black Star Symposium, he was really honest in saying, “I am really, really tired of talking about diversity. […] Why? Because I am a storyteller. I love telling stories. I love being a filmmaker. And these talks take energy and time away from what I really love to do. […] I segwayed from being a cog in a wheel to a decision-maker and my perspective, my bias now governs the work I do because I create the work I do and I create the world I want to see.”
And I hope that he will continue to tell redeeming stories. I applaud him for his bravery, initiative and versatility.