“If I’m totally honest, I was surprised,” says David Oyelowo, recalling the moment he was first approached for Come Away, his latest film. A fantasy tale that reimagines Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland as siblings, it was the kind of film Oyelowo says he watched as a child “but almost never – well, never – saw myself represented in”.
Oyelowo stars opposite Angelina Jolie, playing the parents of three mixed-race children, including Peter and Alice. The film deals with dark subject matter, including alcoholism and death; but despite their grief, the children can always rely on their glittering imaginations.
“Soon after I started to read it [the script], I realised, ‘Whoa, this is actually a world in which Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan would be kids who looked like me when I was younger, and looked like my kids now’,” Oyelowo told me over Zoom, his home study filled with LA sunshine.
The film, set in Victorian-era England, has been criticised for not explicitly mentioning race relations, but Oyelowo argues that American film critics “didn’t take into consideration… how race plays a part in British life”.
Oyelowo’s character Jack is described as “lower class” by his sister-in-law (played by a snobbish but vulnerable Anna Chancellor). “That’s a very loaded statement in the context of the film, because I feel, historically and traditionally, if you’re a person of colour in the UK, you automatically have been deemed of a lower class,” Oyelowo says. “No matter how hard you work, no matter how wealthy you become, there is still a notion that there is a ceiling on the level of class you will ever attain in the UK.” By contrast, “class in America is very tied to money”.
Come Away was originally written about a white family, and director Brenda Chapman has spoken publicly about how she initially discounted Oyelowo during the casting process, before reexamining the idea and her own prejudices.
“I actually think that it is the audience that is leading the conversation now,” Oyelowo says, referring to increased on-screen diversity in the industry. “Directors like Brenda can be more bold, because when they see a film like Black Panther, or when they see John Boyega as a Stormtrooper, or they see Halle Bailey being cast as the mermaid in The Little Mermaid, and these are big cultural moments that are being embraced by the audience – when the audience is consistently screaming for Idris Elba to play Bond, that tells you that the audience is ready.”
In Come Away’s multiracial on-screen family, Angelina Jolie turns in a dual performance as a warm, playful mother whose grief later renders her cold and detached in the second half of the film.
Oyelowo was instrumental in bringing Jolie on-board, citing their long-standing friendship “built on the fact that we both have a lot of children,” a total of 10 between them. Laughing, he recalls that on-set, “handling three [child actors] was like a walk in the park” following his and Jolie’s combined playdates.
However, not all audience members are as willing to embrace diverse casting as others. Just like A Wrinkle in Time before it, Come Away has suffered from ‘review bombing,’ as sites like IMDB were flooded with fake, negative reviews. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the reason behind the review bombing was clear: “Many of the user comments on the trailer focused on the fact that the characters of Alice and Peter were being portrayed by nonwhite child actors.”
“You know, if fundamentally seeing Black kids playing those roles is something you find reprehensible, the film is not for you,” Oyelowo says, addressing Come Away’s online trolls. “But there are millions of people who will appreciate it.”
The actor is no stranger to review bombing: “I also had a film called A United Kingdom a few years ago with Rosamund Pike. We got so many racist comments on our Facebook page that we had to take the page down.”
Oyelowo also previously starred in BBC One’s Les Misérables, in the traditionally white role of antagonist Javert; a colour-blind casting choice that proved initially controversial. But according to the actor, resisting increased representation is a futile exercise.
“My view is that progress can’t be stopped. It might be resisted along the way, but, like a mighty river, it cannot be stopped,” he says.
He’s hopeful for the future of the film and TV industry, despite a distinct lack of diversity reflected among its off-screen gatekeepers. “I have always said that we all have bias – all of us,” he says. “It’s not about reprimanding anyone for exercising their bias, because I think that’s natural.” He uses ice cream flavours as an analogy for films featuring more diverse casts and stories; if both chocolate and vanilla are made available, “the audience will then choose which they prefer, as opposed to your bias being all that the audience has access to.”
And for Oyelowo, the prominence of this year’s Black Lives Matter movement also proved that it’s not just individuals from minorities clamouring for greater diversity.
“What the Black Lives Matter movement showed us is that the diversity of people who want to celebrate and see Black and Brown people treated fairly is so far and wide, and is absolutely global. Even if we are not there yet, I truly believe we will get there, because, you know, the great thing about that movement is that it’s not a Black movement. It’s a movement that encompasses all of humanity.”
He adds: “At the end of the day, I truly believe we go to the movies, or we watch television, to see ourselves reflected back to us – no matter who you are.”
Come Away is in cinemas from 18th December 2020. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, visit our TV Guide, or find out about upcoming new TV shows 2020.