David Oyelowo: ‘We don't give black and brown actors the chance to fail’

A new BBC documentary explores race and Hollywood in the wake of Moonlight’s Oscar win. The actor, along with other film-makers, asks whether that moment actually made a difference

There’s a mistake. Moonlight. You guys won best picture. This is not a joke. Come up here.” The fiasco of the 2017 Oscars, when retro musical La La Land was initially, erroneously, given the best picture statue, was unfortunate beyond the unbearable cringe of the mix-up itself. The kerfuffle obscured the fact that Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age tale about a boy growing up gay in Florida had just made history: a film with an all-black cast, with a story not about racism or slavery but simply contemporary black people’s lives, had won the Academy’s top prize.

It’s the watershed moment that opens Black Hollywood: “They’ve Gotta Have Us”, a new documentary series by the artist and photographer Simon Frederick. The three-part oral history of black cinema replays that Academy Awards debacle, then spools back to laud cinema’s original black trailblazers. Moonlight is to some extent presented as the full stop at the end of a story about a fight for representation. So was it a new dawn or is there much more work to do? What happened next?

Moonlight’s win put an end, temporarily at least, to #OscarsSoWhite, a campaign against the overwhelming whiteness of the awards that had begun two years earlier when the Martin Luther King biopic Selma was among several films whose black stars were overlooked. But since then, David Oyelowo, who played King, has embodied an uncomfortable dichotomy. He has consciously starred in types of films that, still, rarely have black leads: the comic thriller Gringo, and the romantic period drama A United Kingdom. He’s been glad to break that ground, while feeling exasperation that his films carry such extra significance. “If my white colleagues do a comedy like Gringo,” Oyelowo says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “it doesn’t become about diversity or representation. It’s just pure entertainment.”

Oyelowo, who is among the interviewees in Black Hollywood: “They’ve Gotta Have Us”, is “Hollywood’s diversity champion”, according to a BBC News article this year. How does he feel about that responsibility? “I hate it. I really wish it wasn’t mine. It’s not why I do what I do. But I embrace it because this is where we are.”

Where we are, nevertheless, is a place where black performers and film-makers are in a stronger position than ever. “Moonlight was really important,” says Nathalie Emmanuel of Game of Thrones and Fast & Furious 7 fame, who is also interviewed in Black Hollywood. “So many people needed to see that story. La La Land had been criticised for its lack of diversity, so for a black story to win against it was huge. As a result of that, Get Out and Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman opened up the door. I’m reading so many more scripts now that centre around black and brown people.”

Oyelowo agrees that in the past two or three years, Hollywood’s money men have undergone a noticeable change of perspective. “They’ve been swayed not by what we all like to think is our cultural voice, but by what we’ve been saying for ages, which is that black and brown people can and do equal box office. There are several films now that have proved that people of colour [can succeed] both critically and financially. People are making their voices heard that they want more, and sometimes they didn’t even realise how thirsty they were for this until they were given it. That definitely has led to things being greenlit that otherwise wouldn’t have been.”

This change has been a long time coming. Although it adds archive clips to the mix, Black Hollywood retains the distinctively styled, intimate interviews that made up Frederick’s previous series, 2016’s Black Is the New Black. Remarkably, the speakers include three actors who can claim to be cinematic pioneers: 91-year-old Harry Belafonte, 83-year-old Claudine star Diahann Carroll, and British actor Earl Cameron, who is 101. Their recollections are lucid and personal, a direct line to a distant but still acutely relevant past. Belafonte and Carroll talk revealingly of their interactions with Sidney Poitier, and how for years he bore the burden of being the icon of black film acting. The evolution of black cinema in the latter part of the 20th century is then analysed by other contributors, including Barry Jenkins.

Breaking black: (clockwise from top) Diahann Carroll, David Oyelowo, Harry Belafonte, Barry Jenkins, Lil Rel Howery and Don Cheadle.
Breaking black: (clockwise from top) Diahann Carroll, David Oyelowo, Harry Belafonte, Barry Jenkins, Lil Rel Howery and Don Cheadle. Photograph: BBC/Simon Frederick

In terms of box office performance, the next step beyond Moonlight, an independent movie that earned its modest budget back many times over, was the following year’s Black Panther. An entry in the expensive, expansive Marvel superhero franchise, it was a colossal hit, proving that such films can have a black cast. “I smiled all the way through it,” says Frederick. “They have technology that is ahead of the curve, but they can’t tell anyone because it wouldn’t be seen as credible. And if it was, someone would take it away from them, or people would be fearful of it. For me, it was an analogy for black film-makers. They have always known they could make content that would touch the lives and souls of audiences who saw it. There were just gatekeepers telling them they couldn’t. Now, black film-makers are leading a revolution in film that is not just about them, but women, the LGBTQ community, everybody who is seen as ‘other’.

“Black film-makers realised they didn’t need the permission or approval of the industry,” Frederick adds. “They realised the lessons they’d been taught by Harry, Sidney, Diahann and Earl: you have to go out and make your own careers, defined by yourself. Black film-makers are doing things now on their terms.”

Oyelowo arrives at the same point about self-sufficiency from a different angle. “We cannot expect what our white counterparts can expect, which is a pipeline of opportunities coming their way that they haven’t necessarily created. Idris Elba is directing, he’s producing, he’s creating his own opportunities. John Boyega is doing the same. Eighty per cent of what I do nowadays is stuff I’m developing because I know I cannot rely on my industry to keep me creatively fed. White actors do that, but we have to do it – that’s the difference.

“What we don’t pay enough attention to is black and brown actors being afforded the opportunity to fail,” he continues. “When something we do doesn’t work, it becomes an excuse to not do it again.” Oyelowo cites duds such as The Dark Tower starring Idris Elba, which are used as evidence that black actors cannot front such a movie. “His co-star in that film, Matthew McConaughey, who I adore, is not subjected to the same scrutiny if he does films that don’t work at the box office. Every white male star or director has had films that didn’t work.

“I’m not browbeaten or steaming with anger,” Oyelowo concludes. “I am incredibly proud of the fact Selma was not only a film that people responded to in and of itself, but was part of a movement towards the very thing that we’re talking about now. I feel great about all these indicators we see of change and real progress. What I love about They’ve Gotta Have Us is that we are in a moment where we can talk about the successes, about Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington as beacons. What you’re seeing in the documentary is a sense of pride and galvanised energy. It’s an opportunity to celebrate, but also to keep our industries accountable. My thing is vigilance. We are prone to pendulum swings. Moonlight doesn’t signify arrival; it signifies hope. It’s a journey we are still on.”

Black Hollywood: “They’ve Gotta Have Us” continues Saturday 20 October, 9pm, BBC Two


Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

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