Q&A: David Oyelowo looks for ‘brave, meaningful work’

David Oyelowo
Actor David Oyelowo says his recent high-profile work gives him the courage to try to do “brave, meaningful work.” It’s his move to make, as he’s photographed on a giant chessboard at the London in West Hollywood.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Six months before he floored audiences with his thrilling portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” David Oyelowo had another movie, “Nightingale,” premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It’s all Oyelowo, a one-man show about an Army veteran fighting a losing battle with the voices in his head.

HBO picked up the film after Plan B, the production company run by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner that co-financed “Selma,” signed on as a partner. It turned out to be a memorable reunion, as Oyelowo recently told The Envelope.

What were your expectations for “Nightingale” after it premiered last year at the Los Angeles Film Festival?

At best, an interesting distributor picks it up, it plays for a couple of weeks, max, in New York and L.A. and ends up streaming somewhere. And every now and then, somebody stumbles upon it and gets something from it.


The subject matter is pretty audacious.

Movies don’t get made about those guys. And certainly not me playing those guys. That’s why I jumped on it. It was not written for an African American character. It feeds into my bigger mission, which is to show the world as it actually is as opposed to how it’s perceived to be in cinema and on the news. It was an artistic endeavor, yes, but it was also about the power of the image.

I heard a story about your son asking if you were “playing the main character’s friend” in your upcoming movie about a Ugandan chess prodigy.

That was a powerful question. It’s an indictment on what he sees day in and day out in movies. He’s an avid movie watcher, and even with me having just played Martin Luther King in “Selma,” he still felt the need to ask that question.


Images matter. And he’s not seeing them.

And images are political. So for a time, I have an opportunity to be part of shifting some of those paradigms. That question from my son was a big eye-opener for me about how necessary it is, not only for my children but just society in general. My ambition is to see stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told and characters that are often seen as peripheral in mainstream Hollywood take center stage. And that, for me, is primarily black people.

Lee Daniels, whom you worked with on “The Butler” and “The Paperboy,” is making it work with “Empire.”

The success of “Empire” is indicative of a lie that has been told for years, that nobody would watch a black family on a mainstream network show. It’s the same preconceptions we battled with “The Butler,” when they told us the movie wouldn’t travel. That film ended up making nearly $200 million worldwide. These are lies upheld by people who want to perpetuate a certain mythology because it serves their own agenda, which is them wanting to see themselves in movies.

The pushback against “Selma” was remarkable in that regard.

That started when [director Ava DuVernay] came along and reshaped “Selma” in a way where everyone goes, “Oh, gosh, is this how you’re going to tell the story? You’re going to boost all the female roles in it?” Yes. That’s what we’re going to do because those women were there. That’s why we need more women filmmakers too.

It’s bizarre. What’s the figure? Four percent?

And it’s .4% of black women directing movies. I have a big desire to be a part of shifting that. You direct or act or produce what you want to see, which tends to be a reflection of who you are. I’m making a movie in October, “A United Kingdom,” about the heir to the throne of Botswana who married a white lady. Their interracial marriage caused a diplomatic earthquake between South Africa, Botswana and the United Kingdom. And you just don’t see those stories, certainly not from the point of view of a black South African who married a white lady.


Do you think progress is being made then for better racial and gender inclusion?

Historically what has happened is that you have a moment and then everyone feels like, “Oh, it’s changing,” and then everyone relaxes. And the one thing I refuse to do is relax and assume that we’re in the middle of a critical mass that is now going to self-perpetuate.

Like when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for directing “The Hurt Locker” and people thought it would be a giant leap for female filmmakers ...

I spoke to a producer the other day, saying she had to deal with other producers complaining that a certain female director was a bit emotional and how are we going to deal with that? (a) She’s a human being. (b) She’s a storyteller and, arguably, you want to have emotion in your story. It’s the same thing with a black director. “Oh, gosh, they’re intense. They can be a bit angry or militant.” It’s all born out of fear — fear of a loss of position, fear of the world changing too fast.

How do you change that?

You engage in that fear. I like to think I’m a good actor, but I’m not owed a career. But while I have a degree of notoriety and a window whereby people are interested in what I do, I’m going to try to do brave, meaningful work that tells the truth and shifts some of the tough ground that I feel I’ve had to endure and, at the very least, make it more supple for those coming behind me.

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