David Oyelowo knows exactly what he’s doing. The British actor, best known to American audiences for his star-making turn as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s best picture nominee “Selma,” is serious about working with female filmmakers. And his upcoming slate, packed with awards season offerings from directors like Mira Nair and Amma Asante, makes it clear that the Golden Globe nominee means it when he says that he won’t stop pushing for diversity until Hollywood is finally balanced.
“Oh, it’s completely intentional,” Oyelowo recently told IndieWire when asked about his picking of projects helmed by women. “It’s absolutely intentional.”
Oyelowo is also putting his money where his mouth is, as the actor has started producing a number of the films he appears in, including both Asante’s “A United Kingdom” and this week’s limited release, Maris Curran’s drama “Five Nights in Maine.”
Curran’s film stars Oyelowo as a grieving widower who must grapple with the recent loss of his wife during a fraught visit with his mother-in-law, played by a ferocious Dianne Wiest. It’s a deeply felt adult drama that Curran wrote during one of the hardest times of her own life.
“I started writing the film as my marriage was falling apart,” Curran said. “It’s a piece of fiction, but emotionally I was facing a similar set of questions that David’s character does. What happens when things shatter around you, when your idea of your own future, of your future family, of your sense of self, changes in a moment.”
The film offered Oyelowo a major challenge, and one he almost turned down.
“My hesitation was knowing that this was going to require going to some deep places,” Oyelowo said. “Some painful, uncharted places for me in terms of what I have portrayed on film.”
The result is a film that, by Oyelowo’s estimation, is “substantive” counterprogramming to a summer filled with things-go-boom blockbusters. It also appealed to Oyelowo’s commitment to changing the film industry’s landscape.
“When Maris came to me with this film, I was drawn to it as an actor, but also as an advocate for diversity in every sense, in front of and behind the camera,” Oyelowo said. “I want to see more voices like Maris’ out in the world. You can’t just talk about that, you actually have to do it.”
That thinking extends to Asante’s fact-based feature, which will begin rolling out on the fall festival circuit (it’s already set to screen at TIFF and will open the BFI London Film Festival in October). It’s been a long-time passion project for Oyelowo, both as star and producer, and he was eager to see the film helmed by a woman, specifically Asante. Oyelowo is also starring in another festival offering, Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” an experience which he deemed “a massive privilege.” (Nair’s film will also screen at both TIFF and London.)
For Oyelowo, the tenacity he shows when it comes to furthering diversity behind the camera – especially as it applies to female filmmakers – is something that reaches far past his own career.
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“I personally don’t understand us living in a world where 50 percent of the population are women and such a minuscule percentage is being reflected behind the camera,” he said. “When you think about the impact film has on culture, to not have female voices infiltrating this art form that is so influential, we are all the poorer for it.”
Curran, who is making her feature directorial debut with the immensely personal drama, agrees whole-heartedly.
“There is a problem, and I think that the gap now is in the work to be done,” she said. “The second step is identifying the talent. We know the talent is there. Once we know the talent is there, and we’ve identified the problem, it’s a shameful thing not to [employ them].”
In making her film, Curran experienced some of the worst Hollywood has to offer its female filmmakers. “I had many, many financers pat me on the shoulder, literally, and say, ‘This is great, it’s really well written, I’ll buy a ticket, I can’t wait,'” she said of trying to sell her film. “The answer is, there will be no ticket to buy unless a check is written.”
That Curran could even get in the door for these sorts of meetings — no matter their disappointing outcomes — is a miracle in and of itself. Although Curran’s film boasts a sterling cast and premiered at the starry TIFF last year, she still doesn’t have professional representation. And she’s not alone.
“I can’t tell you how many male directors who have done a short or who have done a development program get agents, whereas directors who have one, two, three films who are women don’t have representation,” Curran said. “I don’t have representation. I think that is somewhere where people who are gatekeepers and who are putting projects together can really give service.”
Through his dedication to diversity, Oyelowo himself may end up one of those gatekeepers. At the very least, he’s not backing down when it comes to the subject.
“It’s definitely something I refuse to abate on, making sure that it is a change,” he said. “It is a shaming of Hollywood to get it right, and it is something that I will consistently fight for.”
“Five Nights in Maine” opens in limited release on Friday, August 5.