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David Oyelowo: ‘It’s worse now for black actors than 15 years ago’

David Oyelowo has called for more ethnic diversity among curators of culture. Photo: the Mobo Organisation David Oyelowo has called for more ethnic diversity among curators of culture. Photo: the Mobo Organisation
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Actor David Oyelowo has claimed that there are fewer roles for black, Asian and minority ethnic actors than when he started out 15 years ago.

Oyelowo, who was the first black actor to play an English king in a major Shakespeare production, also criticised the lack of diversity among “curators of culture” – who he said were largely white, middle-class men. Speaking at the launch of the Creative Diversity report – which found that only 6% of jobs in the performing arts are filled by BAME talent – he said the ethnic mix of people able to green light projects in TV, theatre and film must improve.

“Who is curating the culture? Predominately: white, middle-class men,” he said.

He later added: “Until we have a situation whereby here in Britain there are curators of culture who are reflective of what Britain actually is, especially in our cities, nothing is going to change. Because at the end of the day we all have prejudices, we all have allegiances that are both conscious and subconscious.

“What we have to do is change the demographic, change the landscape, change the faces, the genders, the people who are in those positions of power to green-light projects.”

After his role in Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001, Oyelowo went to star in the BBC’s Spooks for two years. However, he explained that after those major roles he felt he was hitting a “glass ceiling” that limited the parts he was offered.

He said: “Soon after that I could see that actors, my peers, those who had a similar trajectory to me, were going on to do movies, were going on to play leads. We all love a period drama here and they weren’t about to put me in any of those.

“So I started to feel that I was going to start going round in circles. Nice TV, back to the theatre, nice TV… but I wasn’t going to be James McAvoy, I wasn’t going to be Benedict Cumberbatch. I wasn’t going to be those guys who I grew up doing theatre with, and being at drama school with.”

The actor, who now lives in America, said he moved there because a lack of opportunities for him in Britain made him feel he was “planting my seed in infertile ground”.

“I felt pushed out of the UK because of the glass ceiling I could feel my head bobbing against, having been given very genuine and real opportunities. While I was at drama school I remember at the time watching TV in the UK and thinking there were very few examples of actors who look like me and who I aspired to be like, aspired to have their careers. In order to have those feelings I had to look to the States.”

Oyelowo also revealed a number of black British actors had been in touch with him who were “desperate” for work.

“Things are worse now than they were when I was doing Spooks, when I was playing Henry VI – they just literally are. The opportunities that I was afforded are not there,” he said.

Oyelowo also claimed that as a black actor he needed to work much harder than his white peers to secure the same work.

“I’ve always believed as a black person, unfortunately, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. That means I have to work four times as hard as Benedict [Cumberbatch], who’s a good friend of mine, a hard worker and a talented actor,” he said.

His comments follow those of Adrian Lester, who last week suggested Ofcom should enforce diversity quotas on UK broadcasters to ensure better representation of minorities on screen.

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