David Oyelowo: 'People of colour have been expunged from British history'

Oyelowo, star of Selma and A United Kingdom, says he is ‘hellbent’ on explaining black history through period movies to help Britain understand itself

Selma and A United Kingdom actor David Oyelowo called for more black-oriented historical and period films to help Britain understand “how it became what it is”.

Speaking at a symposium organised by the BFI Southbank on Thursday to mark the start of its three-month long Black Star season celebrating black acting, Oyelowo said: “People of colour have been expunged from Britain’s history. One of the best ways to illustrate how integrated we are historically is to have a piece of entertainment that people can also learn from while they are watching it. That is why I am hellbent on period drama: we need the context so we can build, and then go on to grow.”

Oyelowo’s latest role, in A United Kingdom, is that of Seretse Khama, a scion of a royal family in what was then the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, who became the centre of a international diplomatic crisis in the 1940s and 50s after he married a white British clerical worker, Ruth Williams, in London. Khama was forced into exile by successive British governments, but became the first president of a newly independent Botswana in 1966 after giving up his royal status. Directed by Amma Asante, A United Kingdom opened the London film festival on Wednesday.

A United Kingdom trailer: interracial marriage causes outrage in true story

Oyelowo, who gave the keynote speech at the symposium, also cited his experience of attempting to get his own project, about 19th-century bareknuckle boxer Bill Richmond, off the ground. “I grew up watching period dramas, as we all did in the 1980s and 90s: endless adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and I loved them. But I never saw anyone like me in them; so I decided to find a story to erode the excuses for me not doing one.” He said that, although accepting the rejection of his outline on numerous occasions, the reason he was given he found “troubling” – primarily the suggestion that audiences would only be comfortable with films about historical events they were already familiar with, and could “revisit”.

“If my history has never been visited, where does that put me? You are writing me out of this country’s history - and that’s unacceptable ... As someone of Nigerian descent, as a proud African, as well as a very proud Brit, I know that black people’s history in the UK did not start with the Windrush. We have been here for centuries.”

The symposium also heard repeated calls for radical changes to hiring practices in the British film industry, particularly among executives and commissioners. Oyelowo said: “The only way we are going to get diversity is if the demographics of the decision-makers change... The odd token bone thrown is not going to do it. Don’t pat yourself on the back because you made that black drama; that’s not diversity. It’s got to be baked into the foundation of where the ideas flow from.”

Prolific ... Noel Clarke in Brotherhood.
Prolific ... Noel Clarke in Brotherhood. Photograph: Rob Baker Ashton/Rob Baker Ashton/Unstoppable Entertainment

Concern was also expressed at the lack of opportunities for black British actors to work in the UK film industry. BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart presented the results of a data analysis of the last ten years of British film, which showed that despite superficially heartening figures suggesting that 13% of British films during the period contained at least one black actor in a leading role (compared to 3% of the UK population), the roles were clustered around a small number of films – over half being contained in just 47 films (out of 1172 films in total). The total also includes notionally British-qualifying co-productions as Selma and 12 Years a Slave. The most prolific black British actor was Noel Clarke, who spoke on one of the panels and took the opportunity to point out that none of his films had been included in the Black Star programme. Oyelowo observed that it was only after he had moved to the US and achieved success in American films that work offers from the UK began to increase.

Another speaker at the symposium, MediaCom’s Karen Blackett, advocated the creation of an industry version of the “Rooney rule”, the US football directive that required ethnic minority candidates to be included on the shortlist for every senior job. “It’s one of the things I talk about a lot: can the Rooney rule be applied in a business context? ... It’s not about putting quotas in, I don’t necessarily agree with quotas, but I do agree with widening the door to make sure more people are admitted, and talent has a chance to shine.”

Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund and a key distributor of British development and production finance via the national lottery, pointed out that his organisation, at least, had already taken steps to enforce a soft form of positive action, with the BFI’s “ticks” system set up in 2014. “Hopefully the diversity standards won’t be around forever, but at the moment they are there to encourage vigilance around the decisions that are made at every stage in the development and production process ... going right back to how representation in the material.”

The BFI’s Black Star season runs from 17 October to 31 December, and tours nationally.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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