Selma and A United Kingdom actor David Oyelowo gave an impassioned speech at the BFI London Film Festival’s Black Star Symposium on Thursday where he blamed the lack of diversity amongst the UK film industry’s top decision-makers as the catalyst for the country’s exodus of black talent.
“If you are not part of the solution trust me, my friend, you are part of the problem,” he told a packed audience at the BFI Southbank the day after his film A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, opened the London Film Festival.
“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 and who can exercise their perspective,” he said. “That is the only way this thing is going to change.”
He called on key decision-makers not to rest on their laurels for making an “odd token,” or one-off black film. “Don’t pat yourself on the back because you made that black drama,” he said. “Bully for you! That’s not diversity, my friend. It’s got to be baked into the foundation of where the ideas flow from.”
Oyelowo, who is increasingly becoming known as a passionate advocate for diversity in the acting community, even admitted he was “really tired” of talking about the issue.
“That word [diversity] is to me what I think the words ‘James Bond’ must be to Idris Elba,” he quipped, adding that while peers such as Daniel Day Lewis and Michael Fassbender were able to freely talk about their movie and funny anecdotes when being interviewed, he was inevitably asked about the issue of diversity which, he said, was becoming tiresome.
He slammed the UK film business for being leagues behind its American cousins when it came to offering up protagonist roles for people of diverse backgrounds and said the limited roles for black actors are what ultimately lead him to relocate to the US in order to find more parts that, he felt, were reflective of himself.
Growing up, the Spooks actor said he most identified with Brit actors such as Lennie James and Adrian Lester on screen but “to really see the zenith of achievements in terms of acting, I had to cross the Atlantic.”
It was characters played by the likes of Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, who really showed him how expansive roles could be for him as an actor. Oyelowo cited seeing Lester in the 1998 film Primary Colors, as a game changer for him.
“That blew my mind,” he said. “I’d never seen that before. And a seed was sown. I’d seen Adrian do great work here in the UK but I didn’t get to see him fully express his potential, in my opinion, until Primary Colors, when he was in a role with John Travolta and Emma Thompson and he was front and center and the protagonist.”
He added: “It became a North Star for me at that point.”
A huge fan of the English period drama genre, Oyelowo noted that he was never exposed to “anybody like me” in those stories on screen. So, when he had made a name for himself in the UK television landscape with Spooks, he decided to search for a tale that would “erode the excuses for me not to be in that kind of narrative.”
When he found the story of Bill Richmond, a black, British bare-knuckle boxer who was arguably the country’s first black sporting sensation, an unnamed cultural decision maker rejected the pitch, citing “lack of opportunity for costume dramas and the cost.” Reading out a rejection letter from 2004, Oyelowo said this particular captain of the industry told him: “We feel that although the story is fabulous, if we are going to do fewer stories it has to have the element of treat surrounding them and often that means the viewer must have a sense of what it is they are to get. Either a familiar title, or a piece of history ripe for a revisit.”
This attitude, he said, was a fundamental problem within the UK film industry.
“If my history, my indisputable British history, has never been visited, where does that put me?,” he asked. “If we are only going to look at things that need a revisit, you are wiping me out of this country’s history. That is unacceptable to me.”
He added that at that point, he felt he had to leave the UK. “If I had seen A United Kingdom when I came out of drama school, I don’t think I would be living in America now.
But he implored top execs in the business to “please stop this talent drain.”
“You have to change the demographics of the people making the decisions.”