David Oyelowo attacks lack of black roles in British period dramas

(Image credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images)

David Oyelowo has criticised TV bosses for ignoring the real picture in British history by failing to cast black actors in period dramas.

The 38-year-old former Spooks star left Britain in 2007 to pursue his career in the US, landing a number of big-screen roles, including playing Martin Luther King in the new Hollywood film Selma.

David Oyelowo speaks at the Martin Luther King holiday commemorative service

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (David Goldman/AP/Press Association Images)

He told Radio Times magazine that the dearth of roles in Britain for black actors had left him and his contemporaries frustrated.

“There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in LA. We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call The Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the 50th iteration of Pride And Prejudice,” he said.

“We’re not in those. And it’s frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.”

David, who was a leading name in the Royal Shakespeare Company in his early 20s, said: “We make period dramas here (in Britain), but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years.

David Oyelowo with his award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

Award-winning star David Oyelowo said the lack of parts for black actors is frustrating (Jordan Strauss/AP/Press Association Images)

“I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was that if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand.

“And I thought, ‘OK, you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So I’ve got to get out’.”

David said that there were 'people as talented as me if not more so, who chose to stay and aren’t getting the opportunities worthy of them. And I can’t say the same of my white peers'.

His comments come after The Imitation Game star Benedict Cumberbatch highlighted the lack of diversity on British screens.

Benedict Cumberbatch at a screening

Benedict Cumberbatch (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Press Association Images)

Benedict’s remarks were overshadowed by the Sherlock actor’s use of the term 'coloured', for which he later apologised.

David said: “The difference between myself and Benedict and Eddie (Redmayne) is they can choose to live here and still have a Hollywood career. Because though they can do American movies, their bread and butter in Britain is period films. But had I stayed here, I wouldn’t be in Selma. That’s just a fact.”

The father-of-four added: “I feel like if I came back, considering what I look like and the stories I want to tell, that may still be a challenge for the industry.

“Who knows, I may have chosen to live in LA anyway. I love it, my kids love it, I love the weather. But as an actor, I felt like I had no choice. And I’d love to feel like I had the choice.”

David Oyelowo and his wife Jessica at a screening

David Oyelowo is now based in LA with his wife Jessica and children (Joel Ryan/AP/Press Association Images)

David said that Britain still had a 'fixation with class', adding: “Everything is about class in Britain. Class is something you’re born into, and you can’t earn your way out.”

The actor, who returned to London at 13 after spending some of his childhood in Nigeria, said that in secondary school he was told by fellow pupils that he was 'not black'.

“The fact that I spoke the way I do, and wasn’t playing truant, and was a good student, I had them tell me, ‘You’re not black’. It was because of this notion they had, through feeling marginalised, that blackness became a self-fulfilling prophecy of negative traits.

“Problems exist in both countries, but in America there’s a more vibrant, open conversation about race, because the legacy of slavery is so undeniable. In Britain, race is fenced off.”


Selma has been nominated for just two Oscars and was overlooked by Bafta, despite receiving rave critical reviews and being a hit with audiences in the US.

But the actor shrugged off the lack of nominations, saying: “We made a film that is not your typical biopic, that doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, here come the strings’. We made the movie we wanted to see, not what we thought the Academy would like.”


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