David Oyelowo in Toronto: 'It's absolutely inexcusable female directors are marginalised'

The actor, who has two films directed by women premiering at Tiff, also attacks British period films for not featuring black characters and says he will always ‘be an advocate for diversity’

It’s no coincidence both David Oyelowo’s two films premiering at the Toronto film festival – A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe – were directed by women.

The former, in which he stars as Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana, who caused an international stir for marrying a white woman from London in the late 1940s, comes from Amma Asante, whose mixed-race period romance Belle also debuted at Toronto. Monsoon Wedding directpr Mira Nair is behind Queen of Katwe, about a missionary (Oyelowo) who coaches a young chess prodigy in the slums of Uganda.

During a discussion about A United Kingdom at the festival on Friday, co-hosted by the Guardian, Oyelowo said that since first collaborating with Ava DuVernay on the Sundance award-winning drama Middle of Nowhere, he’s made it his mission to work with more women behind the lens.

“I watched how perspective from your own racial bias can impact a film,” Oyelowo said of making the film. “Working with Ava was definitely the moment where something I knew to be true was manifested in reality.”

Oyelowo reunited with DuVernay for the Oscar-winning Martin Luther King Jr biopic Selma, since which he’s made good on his word, also starring in the indie drama Five Nights in Maine from film-maker Maris Curran.

“I am richer as an artist for my journey with these women,” said Oyelowo.

It was in fact Oyelowo who brought Asante on to A United Kingdom, after being impressed by Belle and eager see the project – to which he’d been attached to since 2010 – finally take shape. Oyelowo is a producer on the film.

“I very keenly wanted a woman to direct this film,” said Oyelowo. “I just feel like if God, in his divine plan, made it that pretty much the population is 50/50 of men and women, why it should be below 10% of women behind the screen, when we have this cultural medium that is so influential, so impacting, so educational, so inspiring. Why the female voice is actively, intentionally being dumbed down and marginalised. It’s absolutely inexcusable. We are all the richer when we decide, ‘You know what? Not on my watch.’ I will till the day I die be an advocate for the d-word: diversity.”

Elsewhere during the conversation, Oyelowo said the chance to make a period film featuring a black protagonist was one of the “primary motivations” for making A United Kingdom.

“That’s one of our big imports, is a good period drama,” said Oyelowo, who was born in Oxford, England to Nigerian parents. “But growing up in the 70s, 80s and 90s in the UK, when a lot of those films were having their heyday, we would watch avidly and never be represented. To be perfectly honest, when I was younger, it was just a given – OK, I’m not there represented, but I love these movies. I was force-fed them because they were on the TV all the time.”

A United Kingdom joins a number of recent films to examine racial prejudice from a historical perspective, including Nate Parker’s controversy plagued The Birth of Nation, centered on Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who led a violent rebellion in 183 – and, of course, Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. This December meanwhile sees the release of Hidden Figures, which stars Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae as African-American mathematicians, who in the 60s overcame racism to make an impact at NASA.

Commenting on the popular trend, Oyelowo said: “As artists, our primary function is not to be educators – but we are at a time in history, where for us, our history needs to give context for stories that we hope to tell down the road. I can’t wait to do my Hunger Games.”


Nigel M Smith

The GuardianTramp

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