David Oyelowo: UK doesn't tell stories with heroic black characters

The Selma star once again decried the inequality in the British film industry, saying ‘the class system in the UK is very real, the old boys’ club is very real’

Selma star David Oyelowo has claimed there is no desire within the UK film industry to tell stories about black heroes.

Interviewed by the Big Issue, the Hollywood-based Briton said he would not have enjoyed the same opportunities had he remained working in the UK. Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr in Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed civil rights biopic, added that the country’s arts scene was hamstrung by issues of class and race.

“I’d never get to play a character akin to Dr King living and working [in the UK],” said Oyelowo, the former star of BBC spy drama Spooks who left Britain in 2007. “If I looked like Benedict [Cumberbatch] or Eddie Redmayne, I could do the films they have done that are being celebrated now. But myself, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor had to gain our success elsewhere because there is not a desire to tell stories with black protagonists in a heroic context within British film.”

Oyelowo, who has spoken of his profound disappointment at missing out on an Oscars nomination for his turn as King, said he hoped to use his newfound notoriety to improve opportunities for black actors in the UK, but said he feared inevitable failure.

“That is a huge ambition of mine,” said Oyelowo. “But I am not going to continue to bash my head against a brick wall. I tried very hard while I was here. And we have a system in place that makes it very difficult. The class system in the UK is very real. The old boys’ club is very real. America has its own challenges but the system is tied to money. If you make people money you will get opportunities, so I am in the process of trying to do just that. And I am really proud of this film.”

It’s another of Oyelowo’s strident denunciations of inequality as he promotes Selma – he also recently criticised television bosses for failing to cast black actors in period dramas. “We make period dramas here [in Britain], but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years,” he told the Radio Times. “I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with green-light power, and what they said was that if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand. And I thought: ‘Okay, you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So I’ve got to get out’.”

He has also been an advocate for more black history being taught in schools. Speaking at the Santa Barbara film festival last month meanwhile, he said of Selma: “There has been no film where Dr. King has been the center of his own narrative until now. That’s because up until 12 Years a Slave and The Butler did so well, both critically and at the box office, films like this were told through the eyes of white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt... you have a very nice white person who holds black people’s hands through their own narrative.”


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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