When David Oyelowo’s parents told him that he had a royal background, he dismissed their claims as fairy tales – until he moved to Nigeria and lived on a street named after his family.
It’s that royal heritage that Oyelowo says has informed his self-image and the way he thinks about his own culture.
“There are a lot of challenges I have undeniably faced as a black person both in the U.K. and in the U.S. that contrive to make me feel lesser than what I am, and I can absolutely see that in the African-American experience in this country,” Oyelowo told NPR last week. “If you feel like the beginning of your history is rooted in slavery, that really, I think, messes with your sense of self, your self-esteem and your self-worth. But to know you came from a lineage of kings […] – it makes you get out of your bed a very different way than if you feel like today is yet another fight.”
Because of that self-worth, and because of the experience of going from the discrimination in the U.K. and U.S. to the reverence of Nigeria, Oyelowo says that he is careful what he does with his image as a black actor.
Although Oyelowo wants to play all kinds of character, he says he won’t play what he considers stereotypical roles.
“Don’t send me your script if you want me to play the black best friend,” Oyelowo said. “I just won’t do that. You can feel when it’s literally an afterthought; you can feel when it’s like, ‘Oh quick, let’s get some color in here.’ That I won’t do because it’s disrespectful and, for me, I’m either part of the solution or I’m part of the problem.”
You can read and listen to more of Oyelowo’s NPR interview here, where he talks about his father’s tribal marks, his experiences in recent roles and dealing with discrimination.