TORONTO — David Oyelowo has two films making gala premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both are warm, heroic tales from Africa. Both are directed by women. Neither of these things is a coincidence.
The first of them, Amma Asante’s 1940s period romance “A United Kingdom,” in which Oyelowo stars alongside Rosamund Pike as Seretse Khama , the heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland, then a protectorate under Britain, now Botswana. A true tale, their interracial marriage (they met in London) spawned heated responses in both Africa and the United Kingdom, which maneuvered to have Khama exiled.
The film, lush in period detail from a fraught moment of history, is old-fashioned in its style but fresh in its subject.
“When you grow up in the UK, certainly in the ’80s and ’90s when I did, you are surrounded by period dramas,” Oyelowo said in an interview ahead of the film’s premiere. “You’re surrounded by Merchant Ivory films and adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and I never saw myself represented in British history, in British drama.”
The film, which is shopping for distribution at Toronto, is a six-year labor of love for Oyelowo, also a producer of the movie. After being taken by the story of the couple, Oyelowo strove to make the film happen: “I put it on my back,” he says.
Oyelowo has shown such tenacity before. His acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” was years in the making, cycling through numerous iterations and directors.
“Like ‘Selma,’ it was not an easy film to get off the ground, not least because I was attached,” he says, chuckling. “In many ways, I was one of the biggest hindrances to the film, certainly back in 2010. At that time, I was by no means an element that gets any sort of film made.”
The 40-year-old actor, currently prepping to play Othello on Broadway with Daniel Craig as Iago, has seen some chafe before at British history told through different perspectives. In a 2001 Royal Shakespeare production of “Henry VI,” some questioned his casting as the monarch.
“It made me recognize that there is resistance to seeing people of color take their place in British history,” says Oyelowo. “I’m not saying there was black King of England in reality but there were certainly very significant figures in British history, in world history, in history that intersects with British culture. But you just never saw it. You certainly never got taught it at school. As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve really see the effect that seeing yourself represented on film has on an audience.”
Oyelowo’s lack of an Oscar nomination two years ago for “Selma” was a key precursor to what became the “OscarsSoWhite” protest against the Academy Awards. A passionate advocate for diversity in film, he especially wanted a female director for “A United Kingdom,” in part he said, “because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Oyelowo also stars Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” premiering Saturday in Toronto. The upcoming Disney release stars Madina Nalwanga as a Phiona Mutesi, a poor Ugandan girl who rose from the slums to elite levels of global chess competition. Oyelowo, again as a figure of inspiration, stars as her coach.
“I want to see all people represented. I want to see female directors represented. I want to see disabled people represented. I want to see people of color represented. That’s what the world looks like,” says Oyelowo. “No matter how much the status quo tries to push back against that, it’s happening whether we like it or not. And the audience is responding.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP