After 13 years of toiling in the background of mainstream movies and stealing scenes in everything from Lee Daniels' The Butler to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, David Oyelowo finally reached the promised land. The British actor of Nigerian descent was heralded for his performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 Best Picture nominee Selma. Stardom beckoned. It was time to cash in.
But rather than sign up for a big studio blockbuster that would make his African surname (pronounced O-yellow-o) a household one, Oyelowo chose a slew of starring roles in microbudgeted films directed by women—one of the smallest minority groups in Hollywood. Of 2016's 250 highest-grossing films, only 7 percent were directed by females, and most of Oyelowo's directors belong to an even tinier subset: women of color. That was not by accident. "Who gets to tell the story is very important to me," says Oyelowo, 40. "This medium is so powerful, and [right now] I have just enough collateral to create what I deem meaningful. I have to do it while I can. The audience deserves to see images of people of color that are commensurate with the reality of life here on planet Earth."
That mindset fueled his decision to play chess coach Robert Katende in Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe last year and to strive for six years to get his new movie, A United Kingdom, which he also produced, into theaters. It is directed by Amma Asante (Belle) and is based on the true story of Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Botswana, who in the late 1940s put his legacy in jeopardy and sparked an international crisis when he fell in love with a white British office worker (Rosamund Pike). The film is romantic, thought-provoking, and beautifully shot, but no one expected it to set the box office on fire.
Since Selma, which earned $52 million, Oyelowo has starred in four films by female directors. None has grossed more than $9 million. Hollywood stars love to talk about championing diversity. Oyelowo is one of the few who's taking action. But is it holding him back? He doesn't see it that way. "After Selma, what was on offer was 'Come and be a villain in our superhero movie. Come and be on the periphery of something big and loud and noisy,'" he says. "But no. I'm proud to say I've never seen anything I've turned down and said, 'That's way better than I thought it would be.'"
The stakes, to Oyelowo, are higher than that. "There are some people who ask, 'What has he made since Selma?'" says Selma director Ava DuVernay, who first met Oyelowo on her second feature, 2012's Middle of Nowhere. "But he's bold in his moves, and whether or not Hollywood will reward him, history will reward him. He won't take a role that he doesn't believe paints a bolder picture of black masculinity, and he's empowering women by supporting their films, by being their star. It's unparalleled."
Pop quiz: How many solo leading-man roles has Forest Whitaker had since winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland 10 years ago? Answer: one (The Butler). How many times has Jamie Foxx been nominated since winning for Ray in 2005? Zero. And of the 100 highest-grossing films worldwide of all time, how many of them centered on a solo leading male (or female) of color? Not one.
Those are hard facts if you're a black actor, and Oyelowo—who grew up in London and Lagos, Nigeria, and landed his first role out of drama school on the British TV series Brothers and Sisters at age 22—took notice. "Black actors don't receive [the same] opportunities," he says. "Are you going to get to do Captain Fantastic? Are you going to get La La Land? Are you going to get to do Fantastic Beasts? I can either be the guy who helps Eddie Redmayne get to his destination or I can cobble the money together to do a $15 million movie so I can keep this thing going."
His career choices, meanwhile, are changing the types of movies that get made. Oyelowo was integral in bringing DuVernay to Selma, and he watched her transform the script, adding female characters and expanding King's relationship with his wife, Coretta, from a single scene into a complex marriage. "I was gaining a revelation," he says, "of how few women get to tell stories, and how much we are being robbed of a certain perspective [because of that]." His motives, Nair says, are not some act of charity. "The beauty and power of David as an actor and as a person," she says, "is that he has such ferocity, and the sharp intelligence to do some forward thinking about what he wants for the world, for himself, and, most particularly, for his children."
Oyelowo and his actress wife, Jessica (also in A United Kingdom), have been married for 18 years, and they have four children. The family is never apart for more than two weeks at a time, and when Oyelowo has to be far from home, he wants to make sure the work he's doing is worthy of the separation. "Everything is connected to his family being together," says producer Rick McCallum, who began developing A United Kingdom with Oyelowo in 2010. A starring role in a major studio franchise would give Oyelowo more box office clout, and therefore the power to make more films that broaden our view of the world, but it could come at a personal price he may not be willing to pay. "I would love to see him as the next Bond, or in the next Marvel or Star Wars movie," McCallum says. "But it will be a challenge for him: 'Can I make something good out of a movie like that?'"
He's about to try moving in that direction. He'll next star in the Cloverfield-universe movie God Particle, and he recently finished shooting an untitled comedy with Charlize Theron and Thandie Newton. Still, he's conflicted. "It's tough for me," he says. "I love the Bourne franchise. I thought Captain America: Civil War was extraordinary. I'm just hell-bent on people of color getting a fair shake in those movies. That's my thing." Maybe one day it will become everyone’s.