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David Oyelowo on racism in Hollywood, Ugandan film and Queen of Katwe

David Oyetokunbo Oyelowo

As you may know, a film based on a book about Uganda’s chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi – Queen of Katwe – is in the works.

The film that is shooting on location in Uganda, is directed by internationally-acclaimed Ugandan producer Mira Nair, with actors including golden girl Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave), alumni of Mira’s Maisha Lab and Selma’s leading man David Oyelowo.

On this particular Monday, I was meeting Oyelowo at the Maisha gardens in Buziga. Oyelowo, 39, is playing Robert Katende, Mutesi’s trainer – the man the world has credited for bringing chess to the slums of Kampala.

Dressed in a simple grey shirt and black pants, Oyelowo is your easy, go-to guy. He is actually smaller than he appears to be in Selma, the 2014 civil rights Oscar-nominated movie also starring Oprah Winfrey. He does not have those big cheeks or a moustache.

David Oyetokunbo Oyelowo is a British actor, born in Oxford to Nigerian parents of Yoruba ethnicity. He is mostly known for portraying Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, as well as playing Louis Gaines in The Butler.

However, the actor’s career all started on stage when he was offered a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company playing the role of Oroonoko in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, back in 1999. He then went on to portray King Henry VI, becoming the first black actor to portray an English king in a Shakespeare production.


But before the glory, the actor’s road to theatre was a funny one; for some time he had admired his pastor’s daughter. He would look at her from an angle, although he was sure she barely noticed him.

When she noticed him, she invited him to theatre – he thought it was a date.

“I turned up with a pink rose that had been cut out of my mother’s garden and as I walked towards her, she gave me this look that made me notice she clearly thought this wasn’t a date,” Oyelowo recalls. The pastor’s daughter was an actress who had invited him to one of her rehearsals.

Despite finding his crush’s antics during rehearsal weird, he kept on going for the rehearsals, because he liked the girl. However, one day during a tube strike, an actor could not make it to rehearsal and the director asked him to do the lines; even his dream girl was in the room.

“At the end of it, she looked completely shocked. I was like, oh my God, I’ve been so bad that she’s now dumbfounded.”

He was wrong; he was superb. He ended up getting the lead role in that play, which became his first production at the age of 15. Oyelowo is shooting in Uganda for the second time; in 2005 he was part of the Hollywood contingent that flew in to work on The Last King of Scotland alongside Forest Whitaker, Kerry Washington and James McAvoy, among others.

Much as he has been extoled and respected as the first black King Henry, he notes that racism and Hollywood are still real.

“Racism in acting is born out of a lie; a lie that the world is not ready for a certain type of people in big roles.”

He gives an example of Spooks, one of the most successful TV dramas in Britain; he had been a supporting actor on the show for three seasons and he was supposed to lead but was turned down.

That is when he knew he had to leave the UK, although he notes that even in America, a black actor has to work four times as hard as an ordinary white actor.

“Why do you think it took over 50 years to have a [Martin Luther] King film? It’s because he is a black hero,” he says.

Currently tensions in the UK are simmering under the surface after suggestions that Idris Elba (Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom), a black Briton, would make an amazing James Bond – Ian Fleming’s fictional action hero traditionally played by Irishmen.


Oyelowo reveals that Selma was a work of more than seven years; his first audition was unanimously denied since he was no Luther; three years later, however, the project came back. Still, they did not have a director to work on a low-budget film of $20m.

“Spike Lee had come and gone and Lee Daniels had done the same; so, we were back to the drawing board,” he says.

Studios did not want to put money in it because of stereotypes such as ‘black films don’t go anywhere’, ‘they don’t travel’, and ‘people will not want to watch it’.

This is the time Oyelowo suggested Ava DuVernay, a female director whose major film mention was a $200,000-budget Middle of Nowhere. Much as the producers were not comfortable with the suggestion at first, she was hired and thus made Selma the first film directed by a woman to be nominated for an Oscar.

Aida Mbowa director of Maisha Garden talks to Oyelowo

Oyelowo credits his success to the elections that brought President Obama into office in 2008; since that time, he has made many civil rights films including The Butler, The Help, Lincoln and Selma, among others – films, he says, that show what it meant to be black years ago, especially now that America has made huge strides, even having a black president.

“These films wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Obama’s presidency. I think it is because America is looking for context of how they got to this moment,” he notes, adding that right now with most of the super heroes in the US exploited, Africa is the new source of stories.

“Selma was made because of 12 Years A Slave; the studio that made this film didn’t want to miss out on another big project, since they had turned down the latter years earlier,” he says.


“I signed up for Queen of Katwe within ten minutes of reading the script, because this film is a very real circumstance of the need to dig yourself out of a hole,” he says.
“This film matters,” he says. “Katende is the truth; he’s the kind of human being I aspire to be.”

Queen of Katwe is jointly shooting in Kampala and South Africa. The film follows the life of Mutesi, a young girl that comes from nothing to conquer the world of chess.

Oyelowo says Africans need to tell their stories more, especially if they need the West to change the way it views them. Oyelowo, who was shooting in “beautiful Uganda” for five weeks, was in town with his British wife and two children.

While he appreciates Ugandans’ hospitality and laidback nature, he also believes it is their biggest setback when it comes to breaking through in film.

He compares Ugandans to Nigerians, who are more aggressive and ask for roles they believe they can do well, while Ugandans wait with misplaced gratitude for chance to come to them.

Oyelowo’s next project after Queen of Katwe is about Seretse Khama, a Tswana royal and statesman who was exiled for marrying a white woman, but later came back and led his country to independence.


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