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The morning after A United Kingdom opened the BFI London Film Festival, its main star, David Oyelowo, received a standing ovation for an impassioned and frequently comical speech about diversity, a topic he freely admitted he was “really tired of talking about.”
“That word must be what the words ‘James Bond’ are for Idris Elba at the moment,” he joked as he opened the Black Star Symposium, a major debate about diversity onscreen, focusing on issues facing black talent in the U.K.
Oyelowo said he frequently watched interviews with his favorite actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Fassbender, to hear the questions they’re asked.
“They get to talk about their movie, what it’s like working with a certain director, funny anecdotes on set. … But with me, at some point, I get ‘David, we need to talk about diversity.'”
Talk about diversity he did, explaining what led him to relocate to the U.S. to seek roles and stories that better reflected society.
After making a name for himself on British TV in the spy series Spooks, Oyelowo said that, having for years watched and enjoyed period dramas — “endless adaptations of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens” — and never seeing “anybody like me” in them, he decided to find a story to “erode the excuses for me not to be in that kind of narrative.”
Eventually, he came across Bill Richmond, a bare-knuckle boxer in the early 19th century — possibly one of the first black sporting superstars — in 2004 and wrote a 20-page treatment that he sent to various production houses. “And then something formative happened to me,” he said.
Among the responses he got back was a letter that praised the story for its charismatic and sympathetic characters and the potential for a visually stunning production. But it concluded that although the proposal was “fabulous,” there was a concern that it didn’t offer the necessary “treat” for viewers. “Either a familiar title or a piece of history which is ripe for a revisit.”
These concepts of “treat” and “revisit” were at the core of Oyelowo’s ire. “When we talk about bias, the story of Bill Richmond … that’s a treat for me,” he said. “The word ‘treat’ is subjective. But if you are the person legislating, deciding, enabling the possibility of what the entire country gets to see, and what you deem to be a treat is what dictates that, that’s a lot of power.”
But it was “revisit” that Oyelowo said was a more dangerous concept.
“If my history, my indisputable British history, has never been visited, where does that put me? If we are only going to look at things that need a revisit, you are wiping me out of this country’s history,” he said. “That’s unacceptable to me.”
This response sowed a seed in Oyelowo that meant that his story would never get told in the U.K.
Echoing an argument that he and many others have put forward numerous times before, Oyelowo asserted that the solution lies in altering the fabric of the companies producing the films and making the decisions.
“If you look at your companies and half of your staff are not female and a decent percentage of them are not people of color, then you are part of the problem because you need people working for you and you need people in positions of leadership who can exercise their bias, who can exercise their perspective,” he said. “That is the only way this thing is going to change.”
Oyelowo also dismissed the “odd token, the odd bone” offered up as examples of diversity. “Don’t pat yourself on the back because you made that black drama. Bully for you!” he said. “That’s not diversity, my friend. It’s got to be baked into the foundation of where the ideas flow from.”
He pointed to Queen of Katwe — his other film screening at the London Film Festival — arguing that the only reason it existed was because Disney’s creative exec Tendo Nagenda, of Ugandan descent, “walked this story up and down the halls of Disney for years before it got made.”
Oyelowo said that he felt compelled to leave the U.K. to make these sorts of films, to “be in the bedrock, at the decision level.”
“I now live in America. I’m gone, folks,” he said but underlined there were many talented filmmakers still in the U.K. “Please stop this talent drain. You have to change the demographics of the people making the decisions. You are the curators of culture. You are those who are going to shape the minds of those coming up. If I had seen a film like A United Kingdom when I was leaving drama school, I don’t think I’d be living in America now.”
But Oyelowo concluded his 30-minute speech by commending companies, such as A United Kingdom‘s Pathe and Film4 and the BFI.
“Pathe made Selma, they made Pride, they made Suffragette, they made Mandela,” he said. “They are doing diversity. I as an individual, I am doing diversity. Over to you.”
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