With ‘A United Kingdom,’ David Oyelowo shows ‘the Africa I know’ and why Hollywood needs more female directors
The last time an African prince was at the center of a Hollywood film, Eddie Murphy was “Coming to America” in 1988. That’s because, most often, when images of Africa make it to the big screen, they’re rooted in stereotype: a lanky child, stomach swollen from malnourishment; an impoverished, overcrowded shanty town; a group of hunter gatherers who communicate with the clicks of their tongues.
Until now, as David Oyelowo plays Prince Seretse Khama in “A United Kingdom,” in theaters Friday. The role, he said, is just one in a long line of characters he plans to play to diversify African representations on-screen and further “contextualize the black experience on planet Earth.”
“As a Nigerian, there is a real discrepancy between how [Africa] is represented in the media and on film and what it actually is,” he said. “When I look at the landscape of cinema over the last few decades as it pertains to African stories, they’re so often told from an outsider perspective and so often through the eyes of a white protagonist. [With ‘A United Kingdom’], I felt like this is the Africa I know.”
Based on the 2006 book “Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation” by Susan Williams, “A United Kingdom” tells the real-life story of Khama, heir-apparent to the kingship of Botswana’s Bangwato people and, eventually, the country’s first president after it gained independence in 1966. This, however, came after Khama was exiled in England for six years for marrying a white English woman, Ruth Williams (played by Rosamund Pike). Spanning the 1940s into the 1950s, the film chronicles Khama and Williams’ relationship and how they defied family, apartheid South Africa and the British empire.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike star in “A United Kingdom.”
“I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this story, as a person of African descent, as someone who’s constantly trying to find stories that give more context to who black people are, now and in the past, and how that feeds the future,” Oyelowo said.
He added that he automatically felt a “cinematic rendition” was necessary. Granted, he has knack for playing real-life people, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” He decided to take on the responsibility, though he is very much aware of the “danger with biopics.”
“There is this, I think, slightly unfair demand placed on them to be absolutely accurate,” he said. “You can’t do that in two hours. You have to have a take on it.”
And that’s why who directs the film matters, he said. “As we know, perspective dictates the narrative.”
As a producer on the film, he petitioned for “Belle’s” Amma Asante to helm the project, as he wanted the “black British woman of Ghanaian descent point of view on a black prince from Botswana and a white commoner from London.” It had to be placed in the right hands, he said, lest a white savior or American journalist sneak their way into the plot.
“If you’re constantly getting a similar point of view because a certain demographic is constantly in the driving seat of the story, then before you know it, that which is specific [to them] becomes universally true,” Oyelowo said, noting that “A United Kingdom” would’ve probably been a more politically oriented film had a man, white or otherwise, been at the helm. “I know that because I had periods of discussing it with other directors.”
Asante demonstrated how her role as director affected the picture by pointing to the development of “A United Kingdom’s” black female characters.
“When I first came on board, the African women in the story didn’t have a point of view,” she said. “There wasn’t a sense of African female politics in the story and a reaction to Seretse coming home with a white woman. It was very important to me as a black female to make sure that those women had a voice, that as much as it’s very much a part of the culture in Botswana [to respect men], they’re political and intellectual and have a thinking side too.”
Additionally, Asante took great pains to not necessarily prioritize the love story over the political drama of the time, or to minimize the love story all together. Rather, she said, “it was important to me to express clearly that there could be no love story without the politics, to embrace the politics through the prism of the love story.”
Striking that balance is why, Oyelowo added, Hollywood needs to hire more female directors. (Five of his last 10 films have been directed by women, something that absolutely didn’t happen by accident.)
“Because so often the perspective we see in movies is male, and more specifically male and white, we are malnourished cinematically,” he said. “Not to say one is wrong or right… but if you’re only eating carrots, as good as they are for you, you’ll start turning orange. That to me is what we’re robbing ourselves of when we don’t have different voices at the helm of this very powerful medium.”
As for what audiences can take from the picture, which he calls both “timely and timeless, because a timeless film is always timely,” Oyelowo likens some of the movie’s conflict to the currently divisive world, which is getting only more so. But the central message is about the power of love, across the aisle and across differences.
“Be reminded right now that love can overcome so much of the ugliness that is in the world, whether politically or from families that disagree,” Oyelowo said. “When you are operating from a place of love, it’s extraordinary what can be overcome.”
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