David Oyelowo had been, as he puts it, "sick with nerves," all day.
The movie he had spent six years shepherding to completion, "A United Kingdom," was about to have its first public screening at the Toronto Film Festival. He'd only seen it on a laptop — never with an audience. And now nearly 2,000 people were filing into the cavernous Roy Thompson Hall to watch this true-life love story about Prince Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne of Botswana, who in 1947 married a London office worker, causing a diplomatic earthquake that shook South Africa, Britain and his home country.
Shortly after the movie, over dinner, Oyelowo exhales and smiles. The reviews had broken and they were great (British outlets were particularly appreciative) and the film had received an enthusiastic ovation that brought tears to the eyes of Oyelowo and the film's director, Amma Asante.
"Six years and many disappointments and rejections and hurdles," Oyelowo says. "It's very emotional. You take a moment. It hit us hard."
Oyelowo has two movies playing at Toronto — "A United Kingdom" and Mira Nair's "Queen of Katwe," the story of an 11-year-old Ugandan girl dreaming of becoming a chess champion. Oyelowo plays her coach. (Disney is releasing the movie on Sept. 23; "A United Kingdom" is looking for a U.S. distributor out of Toronto.)
Both movies were directed by women. In fact, Oyelowo has worked with four female directors in a row, including Ava DuVernay ("Selma") and Maris Curran ("Five Nights in Maine"). It's no coincidence.
"In order to create change around the lack of inclusion in film, you have to be intentional," Oyelowo says. "That's the only way it's going to happen."
Since "Selma," Oyelowo has been very intentional with his career choices, using what clout he won from his celebrated turn playing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma" to get "A United Kingdom" made and advocate for women behind the camera, particularly female directors of color.
Growing up in England, the son of Nigerian parents, Oyelowo says he would watch the Merchant Ivory period dramas, longing to see images of people who looked like him on the screen. The movies ran round the clock on television and he loved them, but he also came to accept it as a given that black people would not be represented in them.
"A United Kingdom" is very much in that traditional Merchant Ivory school, a grand production on a modest budget with beautiful images, a sweeping score and exemplary acting. Only it's about an African king who fights for love and goes on to become a great leader for his nation.
The film's setting, for Oyelowo, was just as important as the story.
"I wanted to show Africa as a place where beautiful things can happen," he says. "Films are so potent in terms of what they afford us, culturally. They teach us, they inspire us, they show us who we are. And if all you're getting out of Africa is child soldiers, dictators, corruption, Ebola, whether it taints your view of an entire continent and an entire race of people who originated from that continent.
"But if you can see how alike we are as opposed to how different we are, and not only that, but see leaders as opposed to those who have been subjugated or who are subservient, then that breeds empathy."
He sees Nair's "Queen of Katwe" as a subversive work too, an inspirational sports movie that focuses on the young African girl and not, as is the case so often in the genre, the coach. That emphasis, he says, demonstrates why it's important for women and people of color to shape movies.
"Mira, an Indian woman who has lived in Uganda for 27 years, telling that story is the reason why the protagonist is an 11-year-old girl," Oyelowo says. "And that to me is so amazing. For girls everywhere and for boys too to say, 'Wow, there's an African girl in a slum somewhere I can relate to because she has a talent, a gift, that she works hard to pursue in order for her to achieve this high goal.'"
Both movies represent strong progress for inclusion, which fueled that teary moment between himself and Asante as the closing credits rolled for "A United Kingdom." The two have known each other for 18 years, going back to a little British TV show they did together, "Brothers and Sisters." It was one of their first jobs. They had dreams. And one of them was realized this year at Toronto.
"There's so much on that screen and behind the scenes that would not have happened 18 years ago," Oyelowo says. "That's why you fight, you work hard and you don't give up. Never stop believing."