David Oyelowo’s History of Dangerous Love
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he is one of the top actors working today.
By Eromo Egbejule
As the offspring of immigrants who escaped to London from the heat their intertribal marriage stirred in post–civil war Nigeria, David Oyelowo had a childhood filled with stories from home. The family returned to Nigeria when David, the firstborn — whose middle name, Oyetokunbo, means “the crown has come home from a foreign land” — was only 6.
There, he was further immersed in a storytelling tradition that set him up for a lifetime of bringing stories to life. Take, for example, how his father told young David that the tribal marks he had on his face were from a bout with a tiger “obviously to boost his own ego but [also] to increase the admiration his son had,” Oyelowo says on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, hosted by OZY’s co-founder and CEO. The ruse was up when the family moved back to Nigeria, and Oyelowo saw that many of his uncles had the same marks.
The theme of taboo love runs throughout Oyelowo’s life. His father is a member of the Yoruba tribe and his mother an Ibo, which meant their union was “hugely frowned upon.” Similarly, Oyelowo reveals, his marriage to Jessica, a white woman whom he fell for as a teenager, has been “more of a challenge than I care to admit.”
At the end of the day, you can’t control who you fall in love with and that was certainly the case for me.
A large part of that has to do with the racism Black women have faced in the U.S., where they have historically been viewed as less desirable than white women. “So therefore, me being married to a white woman is challenging,” Oyelowo explains. “I get it, but at the end of the day, you can’t control who you fall in love with and that was certainly the case for me.”
It was a girl at church whom he had an unrequited crush on who introduced Oyelowo to the theater. He ended up at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art on a scholarship, thwarting his parents’ dream of his becoming a lawyer. Two decades later, in 2014, Oyelowo received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.
Oyelowo admits that the work of polishing his craft as an actor and storyteller is nowhere near over. At the forefront of Nigerian diaspora success stories in Hollywood, he has helped pave the way for younger Black actors like Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and John Boyega (The Force Awakens) while navigating issues of discrimination that America continues to contend with, far more than their native Britain.
Oyelowo spent substantial time studying King before portraying him in Selma, and while the current civil unrest in the U.S. can feel like that of 1968, the actor notices something substantially different in the protest movement that is sweeping the nation now.
“One of the things that is so encouraging about these recent protests is just how many white people, people of all races were in the streets protesting,” Oyelowo says. “That has never happened in the history of America. More often than not, it’s Black people begging for white people to recognize our cause and link arms with us, and they would do that periodically before going back to their white privilege situations.”
- Eromo Egbejule