David Oyelowo on fighting the legacy of colonialism and being told to just "shut up, make movies"

The acclaimed actor appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss representation and directing family film "The Water Man"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 6, 2021 6:36PM (EDT)

David Oyelowo behind the scenes on "The Water Man" (Karen Ballard/RLJE Films)
David Oyelowo behind the scenes on "The Water Man" (Karen Ballard/RLJE Films)

People throw the idea of representation around over and over again and at times the idea can seem redundant; however, it does matter. As a child I never met a professional artist­­ –– a person who made a living solely off of their creation, like I do now as a writer, or my friends that paint beautiful pictures, or are photographers, sculptors and actors. This idea seemed crazy to a young me. If you weren't employed by the city or one of the area hospitals, then you were selling drugs and that was it. As a result of that reality, most of my friends and I never really followed our dreams, ending up in dead-end professions that we hated, or committing crimes. This isn't just an American problem –– award winning actor, director and producer David Oyelowo experienced the same reality growing up in the U.K. 

Before Oyelowo captured the hearts of many with his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's breakout film "Selma," he was a young actor dreaming of representation, the idea of seeing people who looked like him in films. Oyelowo's success has put him in the position to create the type of representation he always dreamed of as a young man, and we see this on full display in his new film.

"The Water Man," directed by and starring Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, and Lonnie Chavis tells the story of a young boy, trying to save his ill mother while surviving a turbulent relationship with his father. Oyelowo detailed the journey of making the film with me on an recent episode of "Salon Talks."

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Oyelowo here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how his children continue to fuel his quest for diversity in film, why a guilty Derek Chauvin verdict does not mean justice and the evolution of masculinity in art. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

"The Water Man" is a powerful film. For our readers and our viewers, can you just give a brief synopsis without giving too much away?

"The Water Man" is based around the Boone family. There's a wife, a husband, and their youngest son, Gunner. Gunner is our protagonist. They've just moved to this tiny town in Oregon. Gunner's mother as played by Rosario Dawson is quite ill, and there is a legend of The Water Man in this tiny town, and the legend is that The Water Man has the ability to cheat death. And when Gunner realizes how badly ill his mother is, he sets out on this quest to find The Water Man in order to be able to save his mother.

We didn't really have a whole lot of films coming up of a young Black protagonist like Gunner and to follow his journey in almost a magical way. Was that the energy behind the project?

That's a byproduct of who I am. That's the amazing thing about having the opportunity to be the director, to be one of the leading voices on any project or in any institution. You are part of the decision-making, and inevitably your worldview becomes part of the fabric of whatever it is you produce. The script, as it was originally in 2015 on the Black List was a white family. It was set in Montana. The thing I loved about it is it reminded me of those films I loved growing up, "E.T." being a big favorite of mine, but films like, "The Goonies" and "Stand By Me" is another favorite. And I love those films growing up, but I didn't necessarily get to see people who look like us reflected in those films. And so I now, as a father of four, wanted to see those films again. For some reason, they don't make them as much, but I thought it would be powerful to see this through the eyes of a Black family, without it necessarily being in any way steeped in race or struggle. It's just a universal story about love and family. And so, yes, it was a conscious decision, but it's not necessarily what the film is about.

I think it's extremely important just because we're putting Black people in these places. Everything doesn't have to be a hard political statement. We deserve just to be able to live and be free like anybody else. Do you remember the first time you actually felt represented in a film where you were coming up?

Oh, gosh. I mean, I do. It was films that starred Sidney Poitier. I mean, my mom was a huge fan of films, like "In The Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" And there was something about seeing the dignity and the presence of Sidney Poitier in those films that I really identified with. Early Spike Lee was another moment where I was just like, whoa, I remember seeing "Do the Right Thing." I remember seeing "She's Gotta Have It" as well. And they were artistic and nuanced and complex and not stereotypical. Very, very nuanced in the detail and the depth. And I recognized who we are as a people, even though American culture wasn't necessarily my culture.

I'm from Nigeria by way of parentage. I was born in the U.K. and I hadn't really even spent much time in America at that time. But I saw myself in Sidney Poitier. I saw myself in Denzel Washington. I saw myself in the work of Spike Lee.

One of the things that I think about in your film, or I think it's going to cause people to think, is the idea of fatherhood and masculinity and how will you communicate with our boys and our girls and what the father sees as what a father and son relationship should be versus what the child sees. It's a very interesting dynamic. Could you speak to it?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's another thing that I'm just so proud of. I'm a very proud father. I am very aware of my shortcomings as a father, but it doesn't lessen any of the love I have for my children. And as a Black men, that is something that is often not seen, a functioning relationship where there is love, but there's also enough dysfunction that it feels relatable and real, in a sense. But to see that is something I want because it's a reflection of my reality, and for some bizarre reason, it is still fairly rare when it comes to film. But what I also loved about the script is that it really shows that love and dysfunction can co-exist within a family. In fact, that is most families, and sometimes we can simplify these things, especially when the film is being told through the eyes of a child.

So he's either a bad absent father who doesn't care about his son or if a deeply loving father where everything is rosy. Well, neither of those is my personal experience. In this film, Amos is played by me. He loves his son, but there's a disconnect. He's been in the Navy. He's been away. There's a real pressure in the home because of the illness of his wife. Inevitably, that starts to influence and infect his relationship with his son. But as is often the case in life, you hit this inflection point where you have to reassess. I mean, we've all had to do that through the pandemic. What's priorities, what's worth fighting for, what it is you want to be as a father, as a son, as a mother, as a daughter. And that's what my character has to go through. He has to find his way back to seeing Gunner for who he actually is.

How do you pick and choose what projects to take? The word on the street is that you turned down a lot.

I make a lot of people upset with me doing that. Well, I'm very, very blessed. Not every actor has that luxury. I'm very aware of that. But something I have set myself as a task from early on in my career is I want the things I do to have meaning. And whether anyone else agrees that they have meaning, they have to have meaning to me. I have, like I say, four kids, I have a wife I deeply love. I'm blessed with a home I like being in. And if I'm going to leave it, I want it to be worthwhile. And I'm also very aware of the cultural impact of film and television, storytelling. There are filmmakers who believe that they can put out whatever, and it doesn't affect society. That is just not true.

I know for myself that I was influenced by the lack of representation I saw growing up because it made me momentarily believe that my place was on the fringes of society as opposed to in the center of my own life. And as I educated myself, as I got into this industry, I recognized just how important it is for every shade, every creed, every gender to see themselves reflected so that they can feel the center of their own lives. The center of their own communities as well, because that's the place we operate from in terms of strength. And so I try to take roles that reflect that. Yes, I love pure entertainment, but I also like my entertainment with a bit of meaning.

And your name is going to be on it forever, and you have to live with that too. So you should be careful. I totally agree. Do you spend more time in the U.K., or do you spend more time in America, or do you split?

LA is where we live. I've actually been in the U.K. a fair bit this year, for whatever reason. I just finished the film here in January, February. And I'm doing a limited series for HBO and the BBC here. But Tarzana, California is home, and that's where I'm mostly to be found.

I was asking because I was thinking about some of the things that we see happening in Hollywood. Do you see those things happening in the U.K. as well, as far as film and representation and who gets to tell what stories?

Yeah, it's pervasive. I mean, the shameful behavior we have seen in Hollywood is absolutely present in the British film industry and across the world. I will say that there are definitely strides being taken. I think what the BAFTAs just did was very significant in terms of changing the voting structure, and you saw that reflected in the nominees and the people who won and the films that were represented and celebrated. That just hasn't been the case in the past. There was just no way to thrive and to succeed because there were too many people who were basically pushing their own bias, which unfortunately is how we're built as people. "The Water Man" is my bias. I'm not saying that people shouldn't necessarily do what they value, but you need to have enough people in the mix so that everyone is allowed to rise at the same time. So I think strides are being made, but the same challenges definitely exist.

We got the [killing of] George Floyd verdict. Do you feel we have evolved past that moment since you filmed "Selma"? Do you feel we've made any strides?

I hesitate to say strides because the minute we feel that, within an hour another Black person is shot and killed and another Black person is crying out, "I can't breathe." So I can't fully say that because this trauma, this pain, this cycle is just never-ending. It's just so tough to be a Black person in America, in the U.K., in the west, and it's the legacy of colonialism. It's the legacy of slavery. It's the legacy of this design that was very consciously manufactured to suggest that a certain person is lesser than another person in order to build power and wealth for a certain demographic, and that hasn't changed.

What I will say is slightly different between six, seven years ago, when we wore those "I can't breathe" t-shirts in protest to honor to Eric Garner and what he and his family had endured is that we got flack for it because we were basically being told, "Shut up and dribble." Basically, "Shut up, make movies and don't also have a point of view on the lives you lead beyond the art you create," which makes no sense when you just made a film about voting rights and the fight for voting rights in America. The denial of those voting rights, part of the way that it was kept from people was to lynch them, was to kill them, was to definitely have people also saying, "I can't breathe," whether it be metaphorically or literally.

I feel we're at a moment, with the way we consume information now where we're starting to understand each other better. Do you feel we're in that moment, or do you think we have a whole lot of work to do?

I think there is a lot of curiosity right now. There is a lot more desire to be educated, desire to be informed. I think we are recognizing more and more that when people confront us or try to gaslight us with regards to the reality that you live in, it's not enough to just say, "You don't understand me. Let me present to you the history. Let me present to you the facts. Let me show you how this not only has affected me but has literally affected you in the mindset that you are currently projecting towards me." And I think I am seeing people become far more articulate about that. And it is meeting people who are far more open to hear it. Because as distressing as it was to see George Floyd's life snuffed out, it is the most stark, crystallized symbolic moment of the totality of what we as Black people have been enduring in a concise way that the world had been forced by an act of God, i.e. a pandemic, to pay attention to.

It was a perfect confluence of our attention being ready and our hearts being open, and the information being undeniable. And I think that we are still living in the reverberations of that moment. And that moment is being met with information. So I do feel a swing because I was born in the U.K. I lived seven years of my life in Nigeria, and I've now lived 14 years of my life in America. I have lived in these three different continents, three different societies, communities, and mindsets, as it pertains to race, and there has been a disconnect. But I think the lines are now being drawn between slavery, colonialism, and the modern-day reality of white privilege and how it connects to all of those injustices in the past.

"The Water Man" is in theaters on Friday, May 7.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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