As David Oyelowo’s new film, Gringo, approaches release this Friday, we had a chance to sit with him for a small intimate lunch.
North End Grill has an incredible ambience, seeming both incredibly high class yet approachable enough that people in the front of the restaurant were working on their laptops as if this were a local Starbucks. As such, the atmosphere throughout the luncheon was incredibly relaxed yet dignified.
In the back room, the 16 of us all sat for a lunch that reminded me more of a Thanksgiving dinner than your typical luncheon. There was no mingling, no walking-and-talking. Instead, it was just a group of reporters, a small subsection of PR reps, and David, all simply sitting and talking as if we had known each other for years.
The conversation quickly turned to Black Panther, the current cinematic sensation. David mentioned how proud he was for more visions of Africa to be represented. “I have a problem with the fact that when any people talk about charity, they talk about Africa. There’s plenty of poor people in America.” He went on to talk about how we don’t advertise our poverty because “that doesn’t aid the number-one country in the world narrative.”
This later brought us back to his portrayal of Harold Soyinka in Gringo – “I’m never going to play a guy, that you’re just going to be able to dismiss as an idiot, but I’m going to show you levels, I’m going to show you a human being.” He mentioned how Nash Edgerton, the director of the film allowed him to draw on his experience as the son of Nigerians. “[Harold] follows a very Nigerian symbol – Go, obey the rules, come back, be a great man. So you’ve got Harold with the pressure of wanting to go back to Africa, and so he’s trying to figure out this system in America, and do whatever he can to get back home and be successful, and that wasn’t in the script before.”
We mentioned previous portrayals of David’s, namely in Selma, A United Kingdom, and The Queen of Katwe. “In doing a film like A United Kingdom, where I’m playing a prince who’s marrying a white woman, I’m aware that there are people who are fundamentally opposed on both sides, black and white, with that story being told at all. Is that a reason to not show another side of who we are? And there are people, who even showing a young girl in a slum in Uganda. ‘Why do we have to show the slums of Africa?’ Yeah, but for me, it’s about how she ascends beyond her circumstances, to become a world class chess champion. And in A United Kingdom, it’s about a man who loves his country so much, that he changes that country, forever, for the better.”
As the Oscars had just occurred, the conversation turned to how nominations have changed. “The truth is we were receiving nominations before, but often for playing subservient, subjugated, brow-beaten characters. Why are they celebrating that more than when we’re playing heroes?”
Over and over again, David would return to the same topic – “We are living in a moment that will be written about.” David has been a crucial part of this moment, from his work in Selma, which helped spawn the OscarsSoWhite movement, to Queen of Katwe, one of Disney’s earlier forays into telling an African story, and finally to Gringo, telling perhaps the least heard story of all – a Nigerian immigrant in middle management, David has managed to create a name for himself, and sharing this lunch with him was an incredible privilege.