I have a dream…
Actor David Oyelowo has seen political division and racism consume America in recent months, culminating in the recent violence in Washington. He speaks exclusively to Tony Yorke about his fears and hopes for the world’s greatest democracy, how a strong faith keeps him on the right path – and how his latest hands-on Hollywood role bodes well for the future.
David Oyelowo is relaxing at his home in the US. He is in the midst of a virtual promotional tour to publicise Come Away, his latest Hollywood film. It has been a long day for the British actor, who now plies his trade across the pond and has lived in the US for several years.
David, who has more than 40 movie credits to his name and was the first black actor to play Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, is in a reflective mood as he contemplates the worrying growth of racism and division in his adopted country, and the faith challenges he and others face, in times that are increasingly becoming insecure and dangerous.
‘Something is deeply wrong over here,’ he says, as he reflects on the death of George Floyd and other members of the black community. ‘This country is divided in two and there doesn’t seem to be anything gluing the two sides together. Right now, I fear for the future of America.’
This interview was conducted just a few days before a legion of supporters of outgoing President, Donald Trump, descended on Capitol Hill and stormed the US Senate building. Five people died in the process.
Prophetic words, some may say. But not Oyelowo, star of the 2014 blockbuster Selma, which charted the life of Dr Martin Luther King, and who has just brought the animated fantasy film Come Away to the big screen.
‘There are many over here who are calling for change, and there are those who are resisting,’ he says. ‘And therein lies the problem: there are two distinct groups who believe they are right and are unwilling to compromise. Yet compromise is exactly what is needed for the sake of everyone. But I am not sure there will be much of it in the short-term.’
Oyelowo is not your typical actor. As well as being highly intelligent, he is also a committed Christian. He doesn’t seek approval on social media, and his Twitter account boasts only a modest number of followers. Yet when the occasion demands it, he is more than happy to speak his mind.
Worst periods of racial unrest
Racism concerns him deeply at the present time. And understandably so, for as a black man Oyelowo has been on the receiving end of overt and subtle discrimination, as have his family and friends.
‘I don’t know whether the US will ever get to grips with the problem,’ he asserts. ‘It is a big challenge, for that means the world becomes a place where racism and marginalisation of colour are expunged. I truly don’t know if that is possible, because at its inception, America was built with these syndromes in place. This land was taken from its indigenous population, built largely on the backs of black people who were stolen from another continent, to build this nation for free. They were never remunerated for their toils, nor have their descendants ever received compensation. It (racism) is woven into the foundation and fabric of America. It is a situation that is going to be very hard to break, it’s so baked in.’
The actor, who also starred in the BBC’s recent adaption of Les Misérables, believes the modern day problems facing the US are greater than those experienced by Dr King, the man he played to much acclaim some seven years ago. And when he explains his rationale, it is difficult to argue against it.
‘We now live in a global village, which didn’t exist in the 1960s and the time of Dr King and the Civil Rights Movement,’ he explains. ‘These days, we can see images in real time, in a way those in the past that sought to exploit and reframe the truth were able to suppress. I hope the sufferings of people like George Floyd are exposed more and more, thanks to social media. If this happens, then it will stop feeling like it is a “black problem” and start feeling like it is something that is an issue that affects all human beings.
‘The marches that are now common in all countries, and how people who are not black feel, mean it is a vastly different world to the one Dr King and those seeking to uphold civil rights experienced. The marches of yesterday were largely attended by black people, screaming, crying and pleading for their lives, whereas today, many different kinds of people are speaking out against racism, and that fills me with hope.
‘One of the toughest things about being a black person, and experiencing racism directly, is being told “It’s not as real as you say it is.” That is something that has shifted quite a bit, [in the] light of what has happened. I hesitate to say this is a positive step because I live in a country where Barack Obama was President for eight years, and you would hear this phrase, that I knew to be untrue at the time, that we now “live in a post-racial America.”
‘Four years after Obama left office, we have experienced one of the worst periods of racial unrest in US history, so I can’t say things are getting better because there are these nefarious, insidious, under-belly, baked-in attitudes that people have, and they are sometimes very good at hiding them. It’s going to take a few more generations to die out before we really get a handle on this thing.’
Tenacity and relentlessness
Turning his thoughts to his acting career, Oyelowo is rightly proud of his role in producing his latest blockbuster, and he promises to be the guiding hand behind more and more films in the years ahead.
‘Producing a film, for me, was born out of absolute necessity,’ he reveals. ‘There have been many projects, films and characters I wanted to be involved with, or be a part of, that weren’t coming my way. So I had a choice: I could just sit there and complain about it, or I could do everything I could to get them going myself.’
Come Away is not the first time Oyelowo has taken on the combined role of actor and producer. But his most recent adventure is certainly the most satisfying moment of his fledgeling behind-the-camera career.
Working alongside Hollywood A-listers, Angelina Jolie and Michael Caine, the film follows the adventures of siblings Alice and Peter, who transform into Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland in a bid to help their parents overcome the tragedy of losing their eldest son.
The pair find strength in the power of their imaginations and set off on an adventure to try and rescue the family, with Peter escaping to a destiny of eternal boyhood in the distant isle of Neverland, leaving Alice to delve into the world of Wonderland.
What happens is told over 94 minutes, using the finest animation technology. And it’s well worth watching, particularly as it will soon be available to watch on the small screen.
‘Tenacity and relentlessness are often the primary qualities needed to get a film off the ground,’ David continues. ‘And I think I have them, when they are needed to be displayed. As I have continued to grow in my career, I have had more opportunities to create roles for myself and others, and to create a playing field that is more level for everyone. What I am trying to do is get to a place where films like Come Away are the norm, regardless of race or gender, rather than being anomalies. And the way to doing that is to just keep on doing it.’
This attitude is a key hallmark of David Oyelowo. He cares what people think about him – but he doesn’t care too much!
Such are his values that he prefers to seek to do the ‘right things’ rather than focus on the short-term and doing things that will make him popular. And driving him forward on a daily basis are his wife, Jessica, their two children – and the Christian faith he is deeply committed to upholding.
‘Christianity has equipped me to deal with a profession steeped in superficiality and self-importance,’ he says. ‘I am not going to say I am exempt from those things, and I have been prone to them at times. They are corrosive and I believe the best of storytellers comes from a place of service – where I serve the character, I serve the audience, and I serve my fellow collaborators. When this is accomplished, a project is at its best.
‘And my faith has also taught me a spirit of service, which means those that are first will be last, and those that are last will be first. I truly try to lead my life in a sacrificial way, as exhibited by Christ, living it out in my work and among my friends and family.’
While these ideals and values run deep in his DNA, Oyelowo, who was brought up in Tooting Bec in south London, doesn’t underestimate how difficult it can be to strive to do the ‘right thing’.
He continues: ‘If you have your feet in both camps, the world is a challenging place. And this is particularly true if you are someone who doesn’t live what you say. I am at a point in my career where it’s very clear to me the kind of things I must do, and those things I must avoid doing. When I was younger, when I was trying to gain a foothold in the acting world and was a little bit insecure about what I believed, there was definitely some weakness there.
‘Now I am blessed enough to produce movies and control the content, so I can, in a sense, lay the table for the meal I want to eat, as opposed to someone who invites me to theirs. This is a very empowering place to operate from. Now, between my faith, my family and the fact I can be more of the author of the direction I choose to go in, these things help me maintain a sense of self.’
An audience with Jesus
Faith is a subject that crops up throughout our conversation, and it is evident from the outset that Oyelowo is not embarrassed at all about talking about his beliefs, and the values he strives to uphold.
After working with many of the world’s most famous thespians, and having a contacts book that reads like an edition of Who’s Who, David could be forgiven for faltering at the final hurdle when asked who he would wish to meet if he had the pick of anyone who had lived throughout history.
Needing little time to prepare a response, he was assured and to the point with his answer.
‘To Christians, my answer may sound odd,’ he says. ‘I say this because, as Christians, we feel we have Christ around us all the time. But the truth is, if I had the opportunity, I would love to have an audience with Jesus. He is the one man who saw things in a way I so deeply admire. I am sure there will be church-goers who read this and think “Surely you can do that any time?”
‘My view is that is not the case. So, I would actually like to go and sit down with him the night before he was sent to the cross. And I would like to start the conversation by asking him “How are you doing, Lord?” That is the moment in history that is formative in my life and most formative in the development of our world.
‘I know what it is like to take on something that feels like it is insurmountable and scary, albeit it might not be in the same league as that experienced by Christ. Nonetheless, I think it would be a conversation I would love to have.’
Come Away is out now on digital platforms and will be out on DVD on 12 April. Details can be found at: comeawayfilm.com