Wednesday 22 November 2017

Disney's new king of Queen

From M15 spy to Martin Luther King Jr, David Oyelowo doesn't just act, he also inhabits his characters

David Oyelowo as Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutes in Queen of Katwe
David Oyelowo as Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutes in Queen of Katwe
David Oyelowo as Matrin Luther King Jnr in Selma

Anne Marie Scanlon

David Oyelowo is no Denzel Washington. Denzel, although a very fine actor, is always instantly recognisable as Denzel. Oyelowo has the gift, that very few actors possess, of being a chameleon and thus able to physically disappear inside the character he plays.

In person I don't recognise Oyelowo as Robert Katende from Disney's new film Queen of Katwe. Robert is a man old before his time burdened by responsibility - he has a wife and child and, despite having a first-rate university degree, can only find part-time work with a Christian sports outreach ministry. By contrast Oyelowo looks far younger than his 40 years. When he tells me that his eldest child (of four) is 15 that day, it's a struggle to believe it.

Oyelowo, who was born in Britain to Nigerian parents, has been working steadily since he left drama school in 1998. To date he is probably best known for playing Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (2014) and Danny Hunter in the BBC hit show Spooks.

In recent years Oyelowo has become a focal point for the diversity debate, something he readily admits he's getting "really tired of taking about." Very recently he gave a speech to the British Film Institute (BFI) Black Star Symposium, where he said that his favourite actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Fassbender, ''get to talk about their movie, what it's like working with a certain director, funny anecdotes on set… But with me at some point I get 'David we need to talk about diversity.'''

Don't be so sure, I tell Oyelowo, I'd definitely want to talk to Fassbender about stereotypes and discrimination. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s almost the only Irish characters on screen were priests and terrorists, now British television is full of Irish characters whose ethnicity is incidental to the plot, rather than intrinsic to it.

When things have changed so radically for Irish people on screen, why is it different for black people? "Well there's a culture question and then there's a race question. For me I am a Brit," Oyelowo responds in his very posh accent, "I am of African descent, I am black and all of those things are still very much on the fringes of what is acceptably, from a filmmaker and televisual point of view, British. At least Michael had his whiteness going for him." Oyelowo does concede that things have changed for the better. He said: "I think that in the same way huge inroads have been made around the representation of Irish people in film and television, we are making inroads - but for me, it's not fast enough."

Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is about an illiterate young girl from the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, who is introduced to the game of chess by 'coach' Robert Katende.

Phiona shows a natural aptitude for the game and, with the support and help of Robert, she begins winning tournaments and starts to experience life outside the slum. Phiona's mother Harriet is played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o.

To be fair to director Mira Nair there are no 'poor but happy' clichés in Queen of Katwe. The unrelenting poverty of the slums isn't downplayed. Phiona lives with her widowed mother, older sister and two younger brothers. The entire family works, selling maize, to pay for the one-room shack they all live in.

A huge part of the buzz surrounding Queen of Katwe is that it is an 'all-black' film. "It's completely organic to the story," Oyelowo explains. "We are watching a community that's entirely black. We never point it out when we watch a movie that has all white people - especially if that's what it was in that community, or what happened historically, that's just life. But with a film like this it feels anomalous, rare, exotic, something to be pointed out… I don't watch this and go "Wow! That's an African story about Africans and I'm like them. In the same way that I don't watch a film with Fassbender in and say, 'Oh there's a film with Irish people in, being white and doing Irish things.'''

You can understand Oyelowo's frustration, especially when he adds: "Until there are more Queen of Katwe films we are still going to be talking about how rare it is and that's what exoticises these films. That shouldn't be the case when you think of how big that continent is." Not only is the film based on a true story but a very recent one. The real Robert Katende was employed on set to ensure that the filmmakers got their chess game correct. Oyelowo says that he did find the prospect of playing Robert in front of the real Robert quite daunting. "It was intimidating as a thought," Oyelowo said. "I'm of Nigerian descent, he's Ugandan, this Hollywood actor coming in… I just didn't know what that would be for him, whether his attitude would be a challenge for me, but actually it was the opposite. It was incredibly useful to have him there, for the accent, the way he moves, the way he interacts with the kids, which he did while w e were shooting because some of the kids he taught chess to were in the film as well. So my research was right there for me."

The actor and the real Robert also share a very strong faith as both are committed Christians. "The thing that I really identified with him, and I like to think is the case with me, is that he is a doer, not a talker. I don't beat anyone over the head with my faith, with my Christianity or what Jesus represents in my life.

''I like to think that it manifests in a way that is edifying in terms of the work I do, the father I am, the husband I am, the friend I try to be. And if that is truly the case then that to me can only be a force for good."

I wonder if it's hard to be a committed Christian in LA where the actor and his wife of 18 years, Jessica, have lived for the last decade. He said: "I have found my faith to be nothing but a positive thing for both me and those around me. It's something I enjoy celebrating and no one has seemed to find it a reason to make them feel uncomfortable."

I ask him if he will move his family back to the UK if Donald Trump wins the election. "I have my 'get out of jail' card, I still have my British passport,'' he joked.

Queen of Katwe is in cinemas from October 21.

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