David Oyelowo Has An Easy Solution for Hiring More Female Directors, Talks ‘A United Kingdom’
As Adam Chitwood’s review of A United Kingdom points out, the movie is nice. It’s pleasant. It has two splendid leads in David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. But whereas Adam saw that movie at TIFF in September 2016, it is being released now. And that “nice” story is now a very comforting one. It’s the type of true story where true love defeats a divisive government in which officials play people and races like they’re pawns on a chessboard, and because there’s a true triumph here, A United Kingdom becomes medicinal entertainment for our current global state of affairs. Whatever aisle you find yourself on, I think we can all agree that division is what many global leaders want right now. And in A United Kingdom that division is fought with a tool that we all want to have or maintain: love. That sounds cheesy, but love leads the way in Ruth and Seretse’s story and as embodied by Pike and Oyelowo, it’s a hopeful story to follow and embrace this February 2017, particularly for Valentine’s Day.
In 1947, Seretse (Oyelowo) is an African immigrant studying in London. He meets Ruth (Pike) at an academic dance merely weeks before needing to return to Beuchuanaland (now Botswana). They are instantly smitten and share records and dances with each other. When he confesses that he has to leave soon to assume his birthright ascension to the thrown, he knows he doesn’t want to leave Ruth behind, so in a whirlwind of emotion, they marry. But the British government, which runs Beuchuanaland as a colony, cannot allow their union to flourish because they are planting the seeds of enforcing Apartheid—the governmental separation of land, streets, marriage, all walks of life etc. on the basis of color—in South Africa, which borders Beuchuanaland. The tiny country of 122,000 people is thrust into a divisive spotlight and Seretse and Ruth valiantly fight back against both the British government and Seretse’s uncle, who does not approve of their marriage for ruling purposes.
Recently, I sat down with both Oyelowo and Pike to discuss the film and various politics therein. There is a video interview above, but I also got to speak to them longer for a one-on-one print interview, which follows below. With Oyelowo, who is also a producer on A United Kingdom, we talked about adapting the Khama’s story, interesting tidbits that were left out and what we can learn from their story today, 70 years later. Additionally, he had some very intelligent and impassioned things to say about how Hollywood can hire more female directors (Kingdom was directed by Amma Asante), how A United Kingdom is an example of how to better tell an African story and why he’ll never miss the opportunity to work with Ava DuVernay (Selma) again. In addition to being a delightful and informative interview, Oyelowo will also get you hyped for God Particle, the newest addition to the Cloverfield universe.
COLLIDER: So you’re not only a star in this film, but you’re also a producer. Can you explain how this project came to you and how long you’ve been working on it prior?
DAVID OYELOWO: Yeah, it was 2010. I was doing a film in Atlanta, a film called 96 Minutes, and one of the producers of that film, Justin Moore-Lewy, had the rights to a book called The Colour Bar which had been written by Susan Williams about Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. Literally, it was seeing the image of them on the cover of that book that really intrigued me. It was clearly the 40s. This man, arm-in-arm with this woman. They just seemed so happy, and that’s not an image you get to see every day. I read the book and subsequently couldn’t believe I didn’t know this story, and it just felt so right and ripe for a movie. I was kind of shocked that it hadn’t happened before but, of course, you know, so much of what we get to see as an African narrative that crosses over to the West anyway is not this kind of protagonist, in terms of Seretse. What we tend to see is some journalist, usually white, who happens upon their story, and we follow them as they kind of put Ruth and Seretse on the periphery, and there’s sort of this weird notion that that’s the only entryway for a Western audience to an African narrative, is to be kind of guided by a less important character. So I just felt, this is an opportunity to show a different side, of not only an African story, but an international love story that happens to have the kind of protagonist that I want to see and very rarely get to see.
And when we talked yesterday, Rosamund said that you called this the most romantic story of the century.
OYELOWO: I mean, it’s real life Romeo and Juliet. And not only is it Romeo and Juliet, it’s not just familial objection that they are facing, it’s from countries, it’s from society, it’s to do with cultural prejudice pertaining to the time. And they win. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, they don’t wind up dead. [laughs] You know, and I just found it so romantic. I mean, a film I really love is The English Patient and when I read their story, just sort of images of that, of that cinematic rendition of the story is what played across my mind.
I know this debuted at TIFF, or I don’t know if it debuted previously in the UK, but it debuted in North America at TIFF.
OYELOWO: It debuted worldwide at TIFF, yeah.
A lot has changed in viewing it now, it’s really nice to see that this can triumph. We kind of need triumph for this type of story at this moment where the world is experiencing some collective grief at where global politics is going.
You had the rights to the book, etc. Were there some interesting asides of their relationship that you couldn’t include due to editing, pacing? In film, you have to leave out a number of things, were there some aspects of the relationship that you weren’t able to fit in there that were very touching to you?
OYELOWO: Yeah, something that was incredibly interesting to me that we couldn’t quite get in because it would’ve ended up being a double beat was the fact that Seretse really didn’t like white people. He had suffered quite a lot of racism when he was studying in South Africa, and so his uncle, as depicted in the film, his Uncle Tshekedi partly sent him to the UK to get over his own prejudice towards white people, because you’re going to have to deal with them because we are a protectorate, we are a colony of Great Britain and we have South Africa right over the border. So that, to me, really in some ways accentuates just how miraculous it was that he fell in love with this white woman, and the fact that love doesn’t see color. We didn’t put it in the film, because you very much see opposition to a white character in the shape of Rosamund’s character when she goes to Botswana, so you didn’t want to play that beat twice, but that was something that was very interesting, and in the mini-series version that would’ve been a cool thing to explore.
That’s very interesting, because in the film the sight of her is a very quick attraction, but if he had that previous lingering prejudice at that point, had he already gotten over it? Or not over it, but a little more over it by the time he met Ruth?
OYELOWO: I honestly think these two people’s spirits, their souls, connected, and it was something that they couldn’t quite quantify. When you even read a book like Colour Bar, you feel the fact that despite all of this politics that is in the book, there is this human element of—whoa! This thing happened. This chemical thing happened between these two people that made them feel inextricably linked, which is why—you know, Seretse wasn’t naive to what this would mean but he just couldn’t walk away from how he felt about this person. And so what we tried to do— and it was a real challenge for us in making the film, because we live in an age where the idea of love at first sight is a more challenging one to accept, but it happened very quickly with these two people. And we also wanted it to be a film less about how they met and all that, but about the opposition they faced. But yeah, that’s how it went down.
I wanted to ask about swing dancing, was this your first time?
OYELOWO: [laughs] Yes, it was, it was. I love to dance and I love different kinds of dance, but this is the first time that I had in any concerted way done swing, and thankfully I had a wonderful partner in the shape of Rosamund, but the thing I love about that dance and I love about its place in our film is that this was a more chaste
time. This was not a time where, certainly between these two specific characters, they didn’t just fall into bed with each other after a few dates or anything like that. Their love of jazz, their love of going to these dance halls must have been electrifying for them because they were suddenly in a physical proximity to each other that in different settings wouldn’t be the case, and that must have been just exhilarating for them, and that’s one of the things we tried to show with the film.
Their courtship is—we think of that as so distant and, like you said, after a couple dates you don’t fall into bed or whatever, but there are many things that are the same when we court now, the fact that they’re sending each other records, I mean, we make mix tapes and mix CDs and playlists and things. The romantic pursuit still has some similarities across 100 years.
OYELOWO: It is, but I do go back to this chaste thing. And also the depiction of love on film. So often, we see lust sort of portrayed as love. This story, in my opinion, was true love. This was two people falling in love with each other’s minds, their souls, their emotions were engaged in a way just—I think now, certainly the shorthand for that is physical, is the physical, sexual expression of that, and that just wasn’t, you know, as far as we can tell, they didn’t actually sleep with each other until they were married, which is, again, something that is very rare, and I would argue also makes them kind of a special couple at this time. Which just goes to show that there was something a bit more, I don’t know, something more grounded, something bigger, in terms of their desire to be with each other than I think can often feel like is the case in modern society and certainly in modern day film depictions of love.
So #OscarsSoWhite became kind of a big social thing after Selma, but obviously this issue of representation was problematic long before Selma, and it’s very easy for, I guess, the industry to kind of point like, “Oh, this was a very good year,” and then kind of not further address it for a while. I mean, you look at Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director and there hasn’t even been a woman nominated since, and there hasn’t been that many more women—percentage-wise— who are directing after her win. Although you’ve been doing a great job, you’ve worked with many female directors in the past few years. I’m wondering, as an actor and producer if you’ve seen any type of, because you have so many things going into production soon, if you’ve seen a little bit of change behind the scenes or if it’s still a big battle.
OYELOWO: It’s still a big battle. There are some positives signs of change. The biggest thing that I think has happened are the levels of awareness about the disproportionate amount of women and people of color who not only, forget the awards, from an industry point of view, not being represented, is something that has to be paid attention to. Thinking of the awards, it’s heartening to see people of color be recognized, not only in front of the camera but behind the camera, with Bradford Young for cinematography this year, the female black producer of Manchester by the Sea, there’s an editor who I’m aware of—that’s great, that shows more of a comprehensive change, but I think it’s unconscionable around female directors. Considering how significant a role that is within our industry, because the truth of the matter is when you have female directors, they tend to hire a more female crew, and their films tend to be more dimensional as it pertains to the female experience. I witnessed that on Selma, I witnessed that on Queen of Katwe, I witnessed that on A United Kingdom. The portrayal of women in their films are far more dimensional, are far more reflective of what it actually is to be a woman as opposed to a male perspective on what a woman is, and their crews are not just more diverse gender-wise, they’re more diverse across the board because they know what it is to be marginalized, and so that role in particular has to be addressed.
As you say, for no woman to have even been nominated since Kathryn Bigelow is beyond disgraceful, because you know, as a person of color, in America, what’s the percentage? I don’t know, black people anyway, 12 to 14%? So you go, okay, that’s a significant percentage, but it’s not 51%, which is what women represent in America, so the egregious nature of that marginalization is, like I said, unconscionable. And that just needs very real attention, because I also don’t buy that there aren’t the directors out there. I always use the sports analogy, which is the Super Bowl. If the New England Patriots want to win Super Bowl after Super Bowl, what they do is they scout. They go and look for personnel who are going to keep them the top of their game. If Hollywood is serious about this problem around female directors, go and look for them. You know, one of the greatest representations of women in the current Academy crop is women who have directed short films. That’s actually a decent percentage. So go to them! Clearly there is a pipeline that you can find female directors, but don’t let there be—I don’t know what it is, maybe 30, 40% of the short films were directed by women, and then by the time we get to the feature films, there’s none.
That percentage of women who directed short films should be where we place our hope for what should be happening in the future with female directors. And I really focus on that as an actor myself, as a producer myself, because I’ve seen—I was on the set of (Ava DuVernay’s new movie) A Wrinkle in Time the other day, it was like elysium, it was like a nirvana. A female first AD—just women and people of color everywhere, so we’ve got to address that.
Of course, A Wrinkle in Time is what Ava DuVernay is shooting now. I was wondering if your next project will be with her? You’re producing a story about Hurricane Katrina with her to potentially direct, is that something that you’re hoping to launch soon? And what kind of take do you want to take on that subject, because there’s been a number of great documentaries about it and I’m wondering what maybe your story would like to focus on with that?
OYELOWO: The truth of the matter is that Ava and I are plotting so many things. You know, as is myself, Oprah, and Ava, just phenomenal women who I find in my life, Ava is like a sister to me, Oprah’s like a mother to me. There’s so many things we’re trying to do, some of which, you know, I can’t talk about, not least because of how obsessed Hollywood is about making announcements of things that are never going to happen. But, you know, Katrina is just one of the things that we’re talking about. When that will come into fruition, I don’t know, but trust me, I am so upset I’m not in A Wrinkle in Time and we’re not going to make that mistake again.
I do have to ask, I’m not sure how much we can get on this, but our readers would be very curious about God Particle, and if that happens before or after the events in Cloverfield since it has been announced that it is apart of the “Cloverfield Universe.” Is there anything you can tease about that?
OYELOWO: [laughs] You know the answer to that question. I know you know the answer to that question. [laughs] I can’t. The thing I can say about it is that I just had the most extraordinary time on it, you know, to do a high concept film with a brain. To do a high concept film that is, I know, just going to really challenge the audience intellectually as well as unbelievable action, and the use of technology, the likes of which—I mean, I don’t do a bunch of films like this, but I know that we do some pretty cutting edge stuff in the film. So, you know, my mind was blown doing it, I can only imagine what it’s going to be for the audience.
Was it something that was, when you said the technology was cutting edge, was there — did you shoot 3D or 2D?
OYELOWO: You know what, there were so many crazy machines [laughs] being used to shoot this thing, I found myself perpetually going, “Okay, so what does that do?” And then someone would start explaining it to me, and I would glaze over because they were using too many big words. So I don’t even know. I know that we’re going to be in IMAX, so whatever it is we did, you’re going to see it in its optimal presentational.
The cast is very appealing. It’s a really interesting cast.
OYELOWO: And like I say, you know, a high concept film with a brain. The way you draw those kind of actors is because there’s some meat on the bone of what we get to do in that film. Yes, it’s set in space, yes, it’s sci-fi in nature, but it’s also character-driven, which was a big draw for all of us.
Last thing I wanted to ask, just to tie back into A United Kingdom, with so much of the plot being about the government dividing people, what can we learn from Ruth and Seretse’s story?
OYELOWO: Well, you know, when you see this film, you’ll see a man who is banned from his own country because of who he chose to marry. And at the end of the day, what enables them to be victorious is the love they shared. And their determination to fight for that love, and I truly believe with everything going on, whether it’s here or around the world at the moment, love is going to be the thing. It may sound corny, but partly why I wanted to see this film come to fruition is it’s an undeniable example of that very thing. You know, often Hollywood can quite rightly be accused of simplifying the idea of love, but I think here you see it in its complexity, you see it in its most efficacious form, you see it in its sacrificial form. I believe that if we remain determined to recognize those things that make us more alike than things that are known to be our differences, then like these two, you can overcome agendas of government, of societies, of prejudice, and go on to win, like these two do.
A United Kingdom opens in select cities February 10 and expands thereafter.
Check back this weekend for my interview with Pike.
Here’s the official synopsis:
A UNITED KINGDOM is the true story of the forbidden love of King Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman from London, which caused an international uproar when they decided to marry in the late 1940’s just as apartheid was being introduced into South Africa. It was a decision that altered the course of African history.