David Oyelowo Fights for Representation in Family Films

The actor turned to directing after an eye-opening discussion with his son. He realized he couldn’t rely on Hollywood to find stories he wanted to tell.,

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The actor David Oyelowo’s journey into the director’s chair took 20 years and one critical conversation with his oldest son.

It was 2015 and Oyelowo was preparing to star in the family film “Queen of Katwe.” His four children had previously visited him on the set of “Selma,” where it appeared there was nothing their father couldn’t do. After all, it was Oyelowo who shaved his hairline and stood behind the pulpit, channeling the oratory skills of the singular Martin Luther King Jr.

Now Oyelowo was turning his attention to a Disney movie, “Katwe,” and was excited to let his son know his father had finally landed at the ultimate childhood dream factory.

“I told him and his first question to me was: ‘Wow, Daddy, that’s great. Are you going to be playing the best friend?'” Oyelowo recalled.

Oyelowo was shocked. The 14-year-old had already done the calculus and figured that if his father, a Black British man born to Nigerian parents, earned a role in a Disney film it almost certainly couldn’t be at the center of the narrative, even if he had just portrayed Dr. King. Though “Black Panther” may have since changed the equation when it comes to Black representation onscreen, the fact that Oyelowo had won the lead role, in a Disney film featuring an all-Black cast no less, hadn’t occurred to the boy.

And that was it. Oyelowo had already spent the better part of two decades building a career that attracted the attention of prestigious directors like Anthony Minghella, Christopher Nolan and Ava DuVernay while playing roles that rose above the lazy stereotypes frequently drawn in Hollywood movies. It was all intentional. As his wife, Jessica Oyelowo, explained, “He’s refused so many roles that painted Black people in any kind of negative light. And not because Black people don’t do bad things or haven’t had bad things done to them. But because he chooses to look forward.”

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Rosario Dawson and Lonnie Chavis in a scene from “The Water Man,” which Oyelowo directed.Credit…Karen Ballard/RLJE Films

But now, it was no longer enough to be part of projects that accurately represented Oyelowo’s reality. From that conversation forward, he would take the social capital he had acquired in Hollywood and parlay it into his own production company, Yoruba Saxon, which he created with Jessica, and which would allow him to control the narrative and tell stories that show off the complexities of people of color. “I am not just going to aim for these things that show a level of representation of my world,” Oyelowo said. “Now I have to fight for them.”

It was his way of doing his part to ensure that no other Black child would feel relegated to the supporting role again.

“My job, I feel, is to normalize my existence,” he said bluntly.

Over the past six years the couple has created small-budget films like “A United Kingdom,” in which Oyelowo played Seretse Khama, the heir to the Botswana throne who caused an international scandal when he fell in love and married a white Englishwoman in the 1940s, and “Nightingale,” the HBO movie that landed Oyelowo, who was the sole actor in the project, both a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination. They then parlayed their efforts into films that would appeal to kids, from the microbudget Blumhouse feature “Don’t Let Go” that he stars in with Storm Reid (“A Wrinkle in Time”) to last year’s “Come Away,” a fairy-tale mash-up of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan,” in which he starred opposite Angelina Jolie. Neither were big hits — “Come Away” suffered particularly from poor reviews and a pandemic-stricken theatrical release — but they were indicative of a new direction.

Now there’s “The Water Man,” an adventure tale written by Emma Needell about a preteen boy who, in an effort to save his dying mother, tries to find a mythical creature with healing powers that is purported to be living in the Oregon forest. Featured on the 2015 Black List, a list of the best unproduced screenplays, Needell turned down an eager studio with a director attached and chose to sell her script to Yoruba Saxon and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios for Oyelowo to star.

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“The Water Man” is just the latest film from Yoruba/Saxon, the production company Oyelowo started with his wife, Jessica.Credit…Michael Tyrone Delaney for The New York Times

For Needell, Oyelowo’s connection to the material and his promise to keep her involved throughout the process was something she had to say yes to. “David didn’t just understand the story, he understood it better than I did, this idea that hope is the strongest form of bravery,” she said.

She was also the one who encouraged him to take the director’s chair. Years had passed since he first optioned her script, financing had finally come through, casting was complete, then their director dropped out — “absconded,” said Oyelowo. His lead, Lonnie Chavis of “This Is Us,” only had a brief window before he had to return to the TV production, and the team was scrambling. Needell knew it was Oyelowo’s job all along.

“I was like, ‘Look, David, you’ve always been the person I trust most with this project. You’re the person who understands it to the fullest, You should direct it,” she said.

So Oyelowo and his family decamped to Oregon for the summer. The four kids, now ages 9 to 19, served as unofficial advisers to their father, and Jessica positioned herself behind the monitors to ensure that Oyelowo still delivered a strong performance as a gruff military parent trying to understand his dreamy son while caring for his ailing wife (Rosario Dawson). That was paramount as was directing the movie, which cost more than $10 million and featured a litany of unpredictable challenges: children, animals, rugged terrain and fire. (Jessica and their oldest son, Asher, also wrote the song that plays during the film’s end credits.)

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Oyelowo with cast members Amiah Miller and Chavis. The director said the film reflects his views on parenting: It’s “something you fail at every day but it doesn’t mean you love your children any less.”Credit…Karen Ballard/RLJE Films

The movie, which will debut in theaters on May 7, before a video-on-demand release, seemed to connect to Oyelowo on a metaphysical level. “‘The Water Man’ is indicative of how I see parenthood. How I see love,” he said. “It’s a force that can cut through stone, and parenting is something you fail at every day, but it doesn’t mean you love your children any less.”

“The Water Man” harks back to beloved films of Oyelowo’s youth: “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Goonies,” “Stand by Me,” and manages to mostly avoid the realm of treacly melodrama. Reviewing the movie when it played in the virtual Toronto International Film Festival in September, The Guardian‘s Benjamin Lee called it “an impactful calling card for Oyelowo, whose choice of debut is a sign of exciting, and big, things to come,” while the Globe and Mail‘s Johanna Schneller described it as “magical,” specifically because audiences get the chance “to root for a young Black male hero as he navigates a family crisis that’s both specific and universal.”

The Netflix executive Tendo Nagenda, who had worked with Oyelowo on “Queen of Katwe” and was an original champion of “The Water Man” when he was at Disney, compared Oyelowo to another actor-turned-director, Kenneth Branagh. “You can’t put either of them in a box,” he said, adding that it’s Oyelowo’s global worldview and his faith that drive his professional choices.

“He wants to work and he doesn’t want to have to choose work that he doesn’t believe in, so he chooses to create it himself,” Nagenda said. (Doubling down on that commitment, Yoruba Saxon just signed a two-year first-look deal with Disney for films across all platforms at the studio, including Disney+.)

Similarly, Oyelowo set the terms for the film’s treatment of race. The fact that it’s about the only Black family in an otherwise white Oregon town informs the story but is not at its center. “For most people of color in this country and anywhere where race is an issue, a lot of what you are dealing with are microaggressions, not macroagressions,” said Oyelowo. “They are subtle things that you go home and think, ‘Did that happen?’ It’s why my son would say, ‘Are you going to be playing the best friend?’ That comes from somewhere.”

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