Chatting With Queen of Katwe’s David Oyelowo

From kings on the chessboard to playing the King of England.

Growing up in Nigeria, David Oyelowo didn’t feel supported in pursuing an acting career. That all changed in Britain when he met a high school drama teacher, who pushed him into theatre. He’d go on to achieve a Golden Globe nod for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s Selma.

Phiona Mutesi, who grew up selling corn in Kampala, Uganda’s slum district of Katwe wasn’t encouraged to chase her dreams, either, until she met missionary Robert Katende, who teaches local children chess as a means of empowering them with pivotal life skills. She would take these lessons and run with them, becoming a chess champion and Queen of Katwe.

Oyelowo, who plays Katende in Disney’s Phiona Mutesi biopic Queen of Katwe tells SF Weekly about the teacher who encouraged him, how he hopes this film inspires young women everywhere and how he continues to move the needle so more people of color can succeed in Hollywood.

The last time that we spoke, you said that you were called to the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Were you also called to play Robert Katende in Queen of Katwe?

Yes, the values expressed in this film and the person who I play in the film, Robert Katende, are inherent things that I value. This man is prepared to put himself, his own ambitions and his own well being to the side for the sake of these kids, primarily because he wants to offer them what he didn’t have, himself.

And a lot of societies, African culture in particular, are very much biased toward the male, so there’s something very unique about seeing this man helping this girl realize her potential. I think that’s a wonderful message as a father to a daughter, myself.

As you share African descent and similar values with Katende, was it easier to slip into this character?

I’m of Nigerian descent and lived there from age six to 13, so to be on that set with Robert Katende in a lot of the environments that the events took place in, I felt very privileged to tell the story under the best circumstances possible. It’s not unlike being on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where there’s something alchemic that happens.

What was it like working opposite Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Phiona’s mother in the film?

I feel very blessed to have worked with her. That beauty, that talent, that hue of her skin, being celebrated on film and on the cover of magazines, is very much in line with what Phiona Mutesi represents. There are so many young girls who will look at Lupita, and it will change their perspective on themselves. Same thing with Phiona Mutesi as far as her chess-playing abilities … these are people we haven’t seen the likes of before, but that’s why it’s so inspiring.

How would you like this film to inspire young women?

As the father of a daughter, I want to leave a world behind where every opportunity is hers for the taking. Also, as an artist, myself, I know that I’m getting to do what I get to do for a living, because a handful of people encouraged me at really pivotal moments where my life could have gone in a different direction. Becoming an actor was not encouraged in the environment I was brought up in.

So it’s very much the same for Phiona Mutesi in this movie, as a girl living in a slum. Everything around her suggests that fulfilling her optimal potential is not going to be the case for her. And to greater or lesser degrees, boys and girls around the world face that unless they’re encouraged — but girls, in particular, because of inherent sexism. So hopefully it has resonance for a young girl living in the Bay Area or anywhere.

Who encouraged you to become an actor?

A handful of people. I had a teacher named Jill Foster, when I was in high school and did plays for fun. She accosted me after I graduated and was set on getting a law degree and said, “I really think you have what it takes to do this professionally. I wouldn’t say that to everyone, but to you I would.” It was the game changer for me, where I secretly auditioned for drama school, and she helped me with that process, which was pivotal.

You became the first person of color to play a king in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, which caused quite a stir.

It was because not only am I a person of color, but it’s also playing the King of England, the optimal, most powerful, historically speaking, for those plays and for that culture. So a lot of the pushback was to do with a supremacist worldview that is rooted in one group of people being seen as greater than another.

So that was a big deal for me, but not knowingly. I didn’t know that I was the first black actor to be afforded that opportunity; it wasn’t until after the fact. But it’s gone on to change things and is no longer that big of a deal. I’m very proud to be a part of that.

But this is still such a common occurrence when you consider the controversies surrounding the all-women Ghostbusters cast, a black Hermione Granger in the next Harry Potter film and rumors of Idris Elba playing James Bond in the next 007 installment.

But also, in and amongst all of that, there’s a lot to be said for stories and characters that hint at the beauty within it all. Because at the end of the day, I didn’t play Henry VI as some type of racial statement. It was just that the director felt that I was the best person for the role, and we did critically acclaimed productions that moved the needle that feeds into Queen of Katwe.

This is a game-changer in that Disney has made an African movie, where there’s no white savior character. The lead is a young black girl, who is at the bottom of that totem pole. It’s being given all the muscle of a Disney platform, which is an amazing thing, no matter what your disposition is around race. 

You received a Golden Globe nomination for Selma, but not a win and no Oscar nomination. You’ve since been an outspoken critic against prejudice within the Academy. How do you feel about this issue today? 

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign made it undeniable that there is an industry-wide problem and lots of inequities that have to be addressed. Today I’m less inclined to talk about diversity and more inclined to do it. So Five Nights in Maine, which has a female director and me playing an African-American character that is in no way stereotypical, A United Kingdom, which I did recently and is directed by a black British director, and Queen of Katwe — they are contributing to ways to get away from this.

I applaud the efforts that the Academy is making, and I really applaud Disney for making this movie. That’s really putting your money where your mouth is. So I think the more that that happens, the less that the #OscarsSoWhite will ever happen again.

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