By Tolulope Abereoje
Multi-award-winning British actor and producer, David Oyetokunbo Oyelowo (OBE) has revealed how thrilled and proud he is about the spate at which the production value and quality of Nigerian art have greatly increased and is taking the world by storm.
According to the proud father of four children, there is currently an explosion of the Nigerian arts and culture, many thanks to the various digital platforms that aid distribution across the planet and it’s a phenomenon he is glad to experience.
Oyelowo, a Nigerian prince from the Awe kingdom, was born in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, to Nigerian parents. His father is from Oyo State, Western Nigeria while his mother is from Edo State, Southern Nigeria. He grew up in Tooting Bec, South London until he was six when his family moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where his father Stephen worked for the national airline and his mother for a railway company. David attended Lagos State Model College, Meiran while growing up in Lagos, until his family returned to London when he was fourteen and settled in Islington.
Oyelowo holds dual British and American citizenship and was awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to drama. His accolades include a Critics’ Choice Award, two Golden Globe Award nominations, and two Primetime Emmy Award nominations.
He rose to prominence for portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in the biographical drama film Selma (2014) and Peter Snowdin in the HBO film Nightingale (2014), both of which garnered him critical acclaim. He was also commended for his roles as Louis Gaines in The Butler (2013), which earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, and Robert Katende in Queen of Katwe (2016). His Yoruba Saxon company recently signed a first-look deal with Disney.
In this exclusive interview with NollyNow, Oyelowo discusses his character in the movie, The Water Man where he made his directorial debut as well as issues that border on parenting, the immigration of Nigerians to Western countries, and the positive impression Nigerian art currently has on global audiences.
What inspired The Water Man?
The genre of the film, The Water Man is the kind of movie I grew up loving as a kid, The Goonies for example, and now that I am a father of four, I ask myself why I’m not in one of these kinds of films being made. So when The Woodsman came along as a script, it seemed like an opportunity to do that with a black family at its centre. You know the Woodsman was produced in Britain, that way it was centred around a white family and having watched those films growing up, and not seeing people who looked like us represented in those films, this felt like an opportunity to change that, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to see it come to fruition.
Let’s talk about one of the central characters, Gunner. Would you say you were Gunner growing up?
Yes, I identify with Gunner because I loved my parents deeply, they’ve passed away now but definitely at that age, I would do anything for my mom or my dad because they were my heroes. They were amazing parents. My mom passed away four years ago from an illness and I spent every day of those three to four years she was struggling with the illness trying to help her get better. So yes, I identify with the character of Gunner, both as a child and now as an adult. I also identify with the character I played in the film, Amos, Gunner’s father, who is navigating his wife’s illness and trying to connect with his son. So, there are so many things about the story that resonated with me as a man, as a child, and as a father.
Until in recent years, a lot of African children did not have the freedom of choice and expression, their lives were planned out by their parents. Do you think this is a universal phenomenon?
Absolutely! I grew up in a Nigerian household and I had very loving parents but they didn’t understand me as an artist. My parents had three sons and they wanted a doctor, a lawyer and an engineer, a very typical Nigerian attitude. Academia is everything and anything artistic is not a “proper job”, so that was the attitude. However, this didn’t mean they didn’t love me, they just wanted the best for me, and in many ways, that’s also reflected in the characters of both Gunner and Amos. Amos is more of a man’s man, he’s been in the navy, he doesn’t really understand his artistic kid who’s always drawing graphic novels and is always in his imagination. Through the course of the film, they come to appreciate each other – Gunner appreciates his father’s love because he came to save him and Amos appreciates his son’s artistic, imaginative tendencies. I think across cultural lines, this notion of what you aspire for your kids to be as opposed to who they are and how celebrating them for who they are is the thing to do is a fairly universal thing when it comes to parents across the world.
The quality of the production of The Water Man is very impressive. How do you think the Nigerian movie industry can up the ante in this regard?
As it pertains to Nigeria and Nollywood, I think it’s already happening. I’m seeing a real increase in the production value, and it’s not just in films. Nigerian fashion, music, and literature are blowing up across the world and streaming platforms like Netflix are huge for exposing the world to Nigerian art. Back in the days, the excuse was piracy which grossly reduced the profit gotten from distributing films in Nigeria or Africa, but streaming has changed that and I think over the next 5 to 10 years, we’re going to see an explosion of the Nigerian arts and culture, many thanks to the various digital platforms that aid distribution across the planet.
Success stories like yours inspire a lot of youths and creatives to immigrate in pursuit of “greener pastures”. What would your advice be to those who are immigrating without a clear vision or goal?
It complicated because you don’t want to brain-drain Nigeria, people need to be there to build the amazing country we so dearly love. I live in Los Angeles and I was born and grew up mostly in the UK as well. I think part of the immigration story is largely based on the notion that the place they are headed is better than where they are coming from. Sometimes that’s true but a lot of times, it’s just that the challenges are different which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. People may look at me and the successes I’ve been afforded and think that that is something to aspire to and that is attainable which isn’t wrong, but at the end of the day, it’s hard work. You’re not going to get there without working incredibly hard and look, there are opportunities everywhere across the world. What I’ve tried to do is to take the successes I’ve had outside Nigeria and hopefully make Nigeria proud and for these successes to benefit Nigerians and Africans, and that’s something I want to continue building. I have a leadership scholarship called The David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship in Nigeria to educate girls who don’t have the opportunity for that. I’m going to be making more African stories for the global audience. I really want to see us thrive in Nigeria, in Africa and beyond those borders as well.