Four years ago, before his breakout role in “Selma,” David Oyelowo told BET, “I turned down a lot of easier opportunities in order to go for the things that I really and ultimately wanted to do. And what’s really nice is that it’s starting to work.”
Mr. Oyelowo’s discipline has paid off, and now he is able to focus on films demonstrating the themes that are most important to him. The self-sacrifice of an individual and the self-possession of a community drew Mr. Oyelowo to his role in one of his recent films, “Queen of Katwe.”
The film is based on the true story of a Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi, who discovers and develops a gift for chess with the help of her coach, Robert Katende, played by Mr. Oyelowo.
Katende works for a sports ministry program in Katwe, a dangerous section of Uganda’s capital, providing extracurricular activities for children who cannot afford the lessons, children like Phiona, who is one of four to a widowed mother.
The film features powerful performances by the entire cast, including Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Phiona’s mother; her character’s fervent devotion to protecting and supporting her children is palpable throughout the film.
We talked to David Oyelowo about his experiences of faith and filming “Queen of Katwe.”
Portraying a real Africa
“Queen of Katwe” was filmed almost entirely in Uganda. Ten years ago, Mr. Oyelowo spent time in Uganda filming “The Last King of Scotland,” a drama about the dictator Idi Amin. He remembers filming a very different side of history from the contemporary story in “Queen of Katwe.”
“It was so wonderful for me to go back to Uganda and to be telling a story that doesn't shy away from the poverty that is very much a part of Ugandan life. As it is in most countries you have both [wealth and poverty].”
But what Mr. Oyelowo found most extraordinary was the joy in people despite their poverty. This, he elaborates, “is something that in the West, we categorically don't have, considering how much we have. It’s a very humbling thing to be around.”
Initially, the great story—as well as the prospect of working with Ms. Nyong’o—drew him to the role. As someone who is proud of his own Nigerian heritage, he was encouraged and happy to see a life-affirming film set in Africa with African characters, as oftentimes films of this nature depict help coming from outside rather than within the society depicted. “Queen of Katwe” captures this important sense of self possession.
“I know, for a fact, having lived several years of my life in Africa, in Nigeria specifically, but [also] having been all around Africa making films, that there is a lot of self possession. There's a lot of self-sufficiency that takes place in Africa,” Mr. Oyelowo explains. “To not only see that, but also to see a black man who is happily married with kids of his own taking other kids under his wing, and in particular nurturing the talents of this young girl—there were just so many things that I found beautiful about this story.”
Playing “a saint of a human being”
The opportunity to portray Robert Katende especially attracted Mr. Oyelowo to the film. Katende, who studied to become an engineer, struggles throughout the film with a call to serve. This man, who could have had a prosperous career, chose to serve the poor children of Uganda.
“As an actor, what enables you to bring complexities to the character are the dark and light,” Mr. Oyelowo says. He faced a challenge in finding the dark side of his character, whom he describes as “a saint of a human being.” Katende himself was on set each day of filming, serving as a consultant to his counterpart. Mr. Oyelowo cites Katende, who has devoted his life to giving others the help that he didn’t receive as a poor orphan in Uganda, for teaching him “the truth of self-sacrifice.” Their relationship is one of real admiration.
One of Mr. Oyelowo’s favorite scenes in “Queen of Katwe” was unscripted. The scene takes place moments before a chess tournament at an elite school. Mr. Oyelowo huddles together with his ragtag team and leads the group of Katwe children in praying the Our Father.
“What I love about that scene is it was very spontaneous, it wasn't scripted,” Mr. Oyelowo says. “Before we started the movie, this album had been put together of the real people, the real Robert, the real children, and as I flicked through it I saw this image of Robert in a prayer circle with all these kids. It was just very powerful and moving to me. I really wanted a moment like that in the film, and it just happened very spontaneously and it ended up in the movie. For me, personally, that's a moment I really loved because it was based in truth and it hints at where these kids get some of their inspiration from.”
“Queen of Katwe” certainly inspires its audience to reflect on inspiration during moments of adversity as well as on the byproducts of self sacrifice. The most valuable message of the film, Mr. Oyelowo thinks, is that “greatness can be found anywhere and everywhere.”
Acting in authentic Christian stories
For Mr. Oyelowo, as a Christian, an important aspect of storytelling is showing not only the light but also the dark of a given narrative; a story must feel real for it to have real impact:
“The idea is not to promote the darkness, or glamorize the darkness,” he says. “I think that we—as the church—become obsolete and less effective to society when we deny the darkness, when we only portray the light. [That] is when we become preachy in a way that can sometimes feel judgmental, and not connected to what people are really going through in their lives.”
Mr. Oyelowo’s religious beliefs are centered around the sacrifice of Christ. “As far as I can tell, and as far as I believe, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is the greatest demonstration of love in history,” he explains, “and the bible can be boiled down to ‘love God, love one another.’”
Mr. Oyelowo is drawn to characters that, like Christ, demonstrate sacrifice within a complex world. “Whenever I get a chance to play a character who demonstrates selflessness, who demonstrates self-sacrificial tendencies, the hope is that it inspires people within their own communities to do the same, and [that it] reminds people that that's the best of us, which I truly believe is one of the central tenets of Christianity.”
The actor sees film as an important—and hopefully impactful—means of “affecting the moral temperature within our culture.” For Mr. Oyelowo, film acts as a reflection of a given culture. “I really think you can tell what's going on in a culture by the nature of the art that is being put out there. It can be pretty dark at times. As much as I can, I try to contribute some light.”
“Queen of Katwe” will be released in the United States on Sept. 23, 2016.