David Oyelowo is often mistaken for an Oscar winner. Right now you’re probably like, wait, he doesn’t have an Oscar? And you’re checking Google. And ... nope, no Oscar. But he does have several accolades that make him a trusted piece of Hollywood royalty. In fact, his besties Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey co-sign his greatness, and just because he doesn’t have the Oscar to proclaim it doesn’t mean he’s not an award-winning actor and producer with golden talents.
Oyelowo’s most recent role is as Harold Soyinka in Gringo. Harold is a law-abiding citizen who somehow becomes a wanted criminal after he finds himself at the mercy of backstabbing colleagues, local drug lords and a black-ops mercenary after traveling to Mexico. Throughout the movie, Harold fights to survive an increasingly dangerous situation. But the movie is more than that.
Said Oyelowo: “There are scenes when I talk about my father in the film, that’s not necessarily my father, but that’s a very Nigerian syndrome, you know, ‘Go, obey the rules, come back, be a great man.’”
He continued: “You’ve got Harold with the pressure of wanting to go back to Africa a success, so he’s trying to figure out this system in America to do whatever he can to be able to go back home and be successful. That wasn’t in the script, but that’s the specificity that I can bring to it as a child of Nigerian parents.”
America called Oyelowo’s name, and it was Spike Lee’s films—specifically, Do the Right Thing—that made him want to live here. Every child of immigrants shares that memory: the experience of American culture that made you believe this country was truly the land of milk and honey.
“When I watched Sidney Poitier, I saw something of myself in him that I seldom saw elsewhere,” Oyelowo shared with me and a group of fellow journalists who gathered in a private dining room in the very posh North End Grill in New York City.
I’d never gotten the chance to interview the distinguished actor, but I had always had a few questions for him. As the conversation carried on and Oyelowo candidly revealed things about his experience in Hollywood that he’d never told anyone else, I figured there was no better time than the present to ask about his involvement in the choice of Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone in Nina, a biopic that Oyelowo executive-produced.
This is the same man who shared, while getting emotional, that he made Queen of Katwe for his daughter so that she could see a black man feeding into a community in a way that has generational impact. So I know Oyelowo has a great sense of care and responsibility around the roles he chooses and the movies he has his hands in.
“I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution,” he said.
Check out the full and extremely vulnerable interview with David Oyelowo as he gets real about racism in the industry, how Selma sparked #OscarsSoWhite, how Black Panther made Africa aspirational, what happened when Mary J. Blige turned down the role of Nina Simone and so much more.
On Using Artistry as a Means of Protest
David Oyelowo: Selma started #OscarsSoWhite. It’s been two years of that. We were reprimanded for wearing T-shirts that said, “I can’t breathe.” There were academy members calling in, like, “Why are they stirring shit?”
Ava, in my opinion, should have 100 percent been nominated for her work in Selma. We got attacked for our depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in the film, basically because people wanted him to be the hero. You can’t have black struggle and no white savior.
Those attacks we faced were real. That was a rival studio, planting stories about how we had marginalized Dr. King in our film and that narrative took literally over the period of voting of the academy, and the moment the voting stopped, the story disappeared. I haven’t told anyone that, but that is how it happened. People bought tickets to go into the Oscars, and they were going to hold placards up during the telecast. They let us know and Ava put a stop to it because that’s not how we win. Let the film do its talking, which is what it has done over time.
Now you have Black Panther and Get Out, and there’s not even a whiff of needing a white savior or anything like that, and that’s the shift that has taken place in three years, and I know it was #OscarsSoWhite that held our industry’s feet to the fire. Cheryl Boone Isaacs did some robust things to change who gets to vote, and the demographic of the academy shifted, which is why you’re seeing different nominations now than we’ve seen before. #OscarsSoWhite was more than an industry thing, it was the audience saying, “We don’t like that.”
We did get nominations, but they were offered for playing subservient characters. Why are they celebrating that more than when we’re playing heroes? It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s real.
On Black Panther Changing the Game
DO: It’s ironic to me that it’s taken a fictional view of Africa to depict what it truly feels like to be African. The regality, the embracing of the resources of that country, that’s all based on fact. I did a film called United Kingdom about an African price. I did a film called Queen of Katwe about a young girl chess genius—there’s been so many lies told about Africa to us as black people that even those films weren’t able to break though in the same way that, if it’s a superhero ... it’s aspirational.
Africa has very seldom been aspirational cinematically because it’s rooted in so much pain for African Americans as it pertains to slavery. But when you have a futuristic view of Africa that has nothing to do with black struggle, that is something to embrace. The ironic thing is that the truth of Africa is actually that, as opposed to what you get every day, which is the disparity and poverty.
There were negative reviews for Black Panther because it served as a threat. People were pretending to get beat up to perpetuate a narrative about us that’s untrue to keep us from ascending to self-actualization.
On the Need for Black Directors
DO: The system is not going to reward you for success as a given because the truth of the matter is, they will dismiss it as an anomaly, it over-performed. The things I see with filmmakers like Ava or Ryan Coogler, they don’t need Hollywood. Hollywood needs them. Ava has said time and again, “I’ve got a bunch of stuff; if it all stops tomorrow, I’m just going to keep making movies.”
I met Ava on a film that she made for $200,000. And the film she made before that, she made for $50,000 of her own money. She’s gone from that to a $20 million movie to a now $100 million movie. Ryan, the same thing. Forest [Whitaker] was the one who backed him on Fruitvale Station and then it built from there.
After Selma, no one was calling Ava. No one. It took Oprah to say, “Come and do Queen Sugar,” and she killed it in that, brought a whole load of other women along with her, and she’s now built a base. She has her own distribution company, so even if it all goes away tomorrow, she has a means by which she will continue to do her work. That’s the difference. Back in the day, we hoped the studios would embrace us.
Not every film you do will succeed, but if one of ours fails, “Ahhh, see, black doesn’t travel.” But the thing is, the audience has spoken. What Black Panther has done, it’s just good business to have all different kinds of people in front of the camera.
On the Casting of Zoe Saldana in Nina Simone
DO: At the end of the day, to get a movie made, the financiers give you a list of people who get the movie made, and there were people on that list who were ridiculous, and we said that’s never going to happen. There were people on that list who were perfect. I’m not going to name any names, but to my personal heartbreak, they said no. They’re people who look like her and were perfect to play her. Sometimes they were, “I revere her so much, I can’t go near that.”
We were struggling so much to get this movie made. In Hollywood, people aren’t in a hurry to make a Nina Simone movie. The person who stepped up was Zoe Saldana. She said, “I love this woman. I don’t know that I can do it, I don’t know that I’m right, but I want to see her story.”
The film [Nina] did not come out the way that I would have hoped, certainly not the reaction that I hoped, and certainly when I first signed onto it, it was Mary J. Blige originally. That’s the movie I signed on to, but for reasons way beyond my control, that changed, and that happens sometimes.
At some point you commit to a film, this is, again, things you can’t come out and talk about. When you commit to a film [contractually], you give your word you’re going to do the film and stick with the film. I’m a man of my word. For better or worse, this is something I’m going to do. And you can never guarantee how a film is going to turn out.
On the “Crabs in a Barrel” Theory in Black Hollywood
DO: Whether it’s Michael B., Chadwick or Lupita, we’re in each other’s lives in a very real way. [There’s a] black fraternity of supporting each other in a way that your success is my success. If you’re coming in on your own, they can pick you off.
We have less opportunities, so when we do anything, you’re trying to be all things for all men for their salvation. I was on set with Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, watching him be airbrushed every day, darker than what he is, to play Idi Amin. No one said a thing about that because a) he’s a man and there’s no politics around beauty that is also part of the issue here, and b) he crushed it.
In doing a film like United Kingdom, I play a prince marrying a white woman. I’m very aware going into it that film that there’s going to be people who fundamentally are gonna have a problem with the black and white sides of that story being told. Is that a reason to not show yet another side of who we are?
Some people who even hate seeing a young girl from a slum in Uganda. Why do they have to show up in the slums? But for me, it’s about how she has ascended to become [a] world-class chess champion. In the United Kingdom, it’s about a leader who loved his people so much, that he changed their country for the better forever.
On the Struggle of Black Films in Hollywood
DO: I’ve done a number of films that are about the African-American experience and the money comes from Europe for some reason. We couldn’t get The Butler off the ground with any studio. When you watch that film, there’s, like, 37 executive producers because we were cobbling that money from private investors. We got to tell our stories, people. We have to get the volume going so that we can fail, we can succeed, that we can have a conversation about representation, that we can see different shades of people in movies. It’s a quality business, but it’s quantity business.
The commonality you will see is the complexity and the dimensions that is synonymous of the reality of who we are as opposed to the best friend or the Magical Negro, or whatever trope. That’s what I can’t do because I know that trope and I know it sets us back.
We are all looking for ourselves in movies.