Why actor David Oyelowo made sure this love story became a movie

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally: An actor at the heart of the Oscars-so-white controversy takes on a new role based on a true story set in colonial Africa.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from Los Angeles.

It’s part of our occasional series Beyond the Red Carpet.

DAVID OYELOWO, Actor: I’m not asking for an answer this very second. All I ask of you is that you go away and think about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1947 London, Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo, proposes to Ruth Williams, played by actress Rosamund Pike.

ROSAMUND PIKE, Actress: I know what you’re asking. Yes. Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Their races make the relationship fraught. But there’s more: He is a prince in his tribe in Southern Africa expected to return to lead his people, and their marriage will have international consequences.

“A United Kingdom” is based on a true story, and it was Oyelowo who first learned of it in a book titled “Color Bar” by Susan Williams. More than just the film’s star, he was the producer who brought director Amma Asante and others into the project.

DAVID OYELOWO: What was indisputable to me was the power of the love between these two people, and it was that very thing that helped them overcome so many of these insurmountable obstacles and odds that they faced.

And, you know, as someone who is a real believer in love myself, and I mean, love in the truest sense, not movie love. I’m talking about the unglamorous stuff of sacrifice, of courage.

JEFFREY BROWN: I must say this film has movie love, because it’s love at first sight almost, right?

DAVID OYELOWO: But, you see, the thing about that is that we even have a name for it, the meet-cute. You know, we have turned it into something that is so fantastical and so inaccessible that it has become fairy tale-like.

But, actually, what can happen — it doesn’t happen every day, admittedly — is that two people see beyond their race, see beyond their cultural differences and their national differences. And they just — two souls meet.

We should be fighting for equality. That is where we should be focusing our minds, not on the wife I have chosen, who means you no harm.

JEFFREY BROWN: The historical characters, Khama and Williams, become caught up in colonial-era politics, as Britain tries to hold onto the land that will later become Botswana, while maintaining close ties to the neighboring apartheid regime of South Africa.

DAVID OYELOWO: It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oyelowo is best known for his portrayal of another historical figure, Martin Luther King in the film “Selma.”

And he starred in a recent film based on a true story set in a slum in Uganda, the “Queen of Katwe.” Born in England, Oyelowo spent ages 6 through 13 in Nigeria, before returning and eventually becoming a classically trained stage actor. He was the first black actor to play an English king for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He recently returned to Shakespeare, this time on Broadway, in “Othello.”

I asked what made him want to take on a role.

DAVID OYELOWO: It’s got to resonate for me, but, also, I want to make things that are synonymous with who I am as a man and how I’m bringing up my children, you know, what it is I believe in, because this is a very powerful medium, culturally, politically, familially. It can shape people’s thoughts.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think of this film and I think of “Selma” and “Queen of Katwe,” right, clearly films that have a kind of larger context to them, right, a history.

DAVID OYELOWO: Yes, I think that is also a key and is crucial to me.

You used the word context there. Something that is very important to me is contextualizing what it is to be someone who looks like me on planet Earth. And by that, I mean a black man. And I have lived on three continents as a black man, and there are differences.

There are complexities and dimensions to being someone like me in all of those places that are rarely, in my opinion, seen on film and television.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the extent that you don’t see you that much in the film world, that has limited the roles that you can get?

DAVID OYELOWO: It hasn’t because I have chosen to do something about it. You know, I produced “A United Kingdom,” and I’m pretty sure that’s probably the only way this film would have got made.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do it yourself.

DAVID OYELOWO: Yes, do it yourself, and because I’m very passionate about seeing a story like this told. And passion is what makes you roll up your sleeves and get it done. And passion, I think, can be contagious.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read that, early on, you asked your agent to go after roles that might have been written for white actors, to put your for them.

DAVID OYELOWO: Yes.

Again, like the producing, it was born out of necessity. When I looked at my white contemporaries or the white actors ahead of me, as a young actor back then, there was complexity that made me see myself in them, even though they were white people living a very different life to mine. I was able to identify with what they were going through emotionally.

And I couldn’t identify necessarily with what black characters I saw in films and TV were going through, because it was one-dimensional, at best two-dimensional.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oyelowo was directly caught up in the 2015 Oscars-so-white controversy when his critically-acclaimed performance in “Selma” failed to receive an Oscar nomination, and neither did any other actor of color.

You said in an interview, “There’s resistance to films with black protagonists, especially if they can’t have Denzel Washington in the lead role.”

DAVID OYELOWO: Right. That must be qualified with me saying, he is one of my heroes, and I will go anywhere to see him.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: As would I. That’s not to denigrate him. He’s a great actor.

DAVID OYELOWO: Absolutely.

But, yes, there is a reason why there’s isn’t a plethora of other black actors that you could reel off the tip of your tongue who — in that space that he occupies, which is that he can play anything. He’s not tied to race as the prerequisite for why he gets to be the protagonist in a film.

And the resistance is — I think is purely to do with the decision-makers, you know? They want to see themselves in movies, as we all do. And so what you see in movies is a reflection of those who are making the decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: But for you, personally, your producer role becomes almost as important, perhaps, as your acting role.

DAVID OYELOWO: Yes, crucial, in a sense. You know, you can either complain about this stuff, or you can do what you can to change it. And that’s the tack I have chosen.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Oyelowo, producer and actor, stars in the new film “A United Kingdom” just out in theaters nationwide.

From Los Angeles, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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