By Emma Krupp
David Oyelowo has grown weary of African warlords, and white saviors, and homogenized tales of a desolate, starving Africa.
“A lot of the films that we’ve seen in the past have been just that, whether it’s crowbarring a white protagonist into an African story or the lens through which African films have been made, often being white and male,” he said last week in an interview with RedEye at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel. “It’s not that any of that is wrong, it’s just that we’ve had so much of it. And anyone who knows about eating food would know that a balanced diet is the way forward.”
Oyelowo’s new film “A United Kingdom,” in which he stars as the king of Bechuanaland in modern-day Botswana, is exactly the kind of balanced portrayal of Africa he seeks.
Directed by the Ghanian-British filmmaker Amma Asante, “A United Kingdom” tells the true story of King Seretse Khama and his white, British wife, Ruth Williams (played by the ever-lovely Rosamund Pike), whom he fell in love with and married after meeting in the U.K. Despite international uproar and exile from his country, Khama refused to divorce his wife. He later abdicated the throne and became the first democratically elected president of Botswana.
In both “A United Kingdom” and real life, the love story of Seretse and Ruth transcends genres. For a high-profile interracial couple in the 1940s and ‘50s, being in a relationship meant living a politicized existence—facing the opposition of not just a parent or a community, but entire nations. And although Oyelowo knew “A United Kingdom” could never be a mere romance film, he wanted to narrow the story’s focus on the connection between the couple
“I think love appears in different forms,” Oyelowo said. “But true love, in any form, is—in my opinion—tied to sacrifice. The desire to give without the hope of getting back is the definition of love.”
Sacrifice is obvious in “A United Kingdom,” but Oyelowo sees the influence of sacrificial love in two of his more recent roles—Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” and chess coach Robert Katende in “The Queen of Katwe.” Each film shows the lengths both men are willing to go in order to create a better life for others, even if that pursuit meant putting themselves and their families in danger.
“I think that’s love,” he said. “So I’m very much drawn to those type of characters.”