Film actor David Oyelowo has criticised fantasy series Game of Thrones for its ethnic makeup, saying there’s “no excuse” for imaginary worlds like Westeros and Essos to only have actors of colour in secondary, peripheral roles.
“The fact that they put any ethnic minorities in that means that there should be space for bigger characters,” the Selma and Spooks star told RadioTimes.com. “Because you’re not just saying ‘OK this is purely a white world, and here are very story-driven reasons why that’s the case.'”
Characters of colour in the HBO series over the years have included pirate Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati), wealthy schemer Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) and guard Areo Hotah (DeObia Oparei), with would-be ruler Daenerys’s army general Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) also adding to the diversity of the series.
However, Oyelowo thinks that such inclusions only highlight the inequality of storylines, with the majority of these characters left in supplementary or background roles.
“You are interspersing people of colour into it,” Oyelowo said, “and so therefore it’s a conscious decision to put them on the margins, as opposed to put them front and centre.”
“Even if for whatever reason, it’s a world in which people of colour in those stories are subservient, or they are more in a helper role, that doesn’t mean they can’t have prominent storylines. All you have to do is shift the focus to focus on those characters.”
“So for me, there is absolutely no excuse in a show like that why there aren’t more prominent characters of colour.”
Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage as their Game of Thrones characters
Speaking more generally about how fantasy and science fiction should lead the way in diversity, Oyelowo (who has played several sci-fi roles including Agent Kallus in the Star Wars Rebels TV series and the lead in upcoming JJ Abrams film God Particle) also waded into the debate about whether BBC drama Doctor Who could ever have a female or ethnic minority lead, based on the series’ practice of recasting the starring role every few years.
While some have decried such a prospective move as tokenistic, others feel that the character (currently played by Peter Capaldi) has long been overdue a gender or ethnicity change – and it turns out Oyelowo is among them.
“I think that is an absolute case in point, whereby I don’t think there is anything about that character that is rooted in white maleness,” he told us.
“There are going to be people who are going to resist, on the basis of tradition, but I think that’s absolutely a character where from a story point of view it doesn’t undercut the story in anyway. So yeah, I would be all for that.”
However, Oyelowo does think that elsewhere the world of sci-fi is moving in the right direction, praising the “groundbreaking” decision by director JJ Abrams to cast black actor John Boyega (above) in last year’s cinematic big hitter Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
“Trust me, there was resistance,” Oyelowo said. “And the great thing is that some of that resistance was vocal, and yet it goes on to become one of the most successful films of all time.
“It shows that you cannot continue to use the excuse of a potential ding in your financial renumeration as a reason not to do these things.”
“You know, I think what [JJ Abrams] did with Star Wars was fantastic, and he’s the producer on God Particle as well, and our cast is myself, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Brühl… you know, it’s a group of actors who’re from everywhere.”
“We can all, I think, hope that our future is gonna be more colourful than what our past has been, certainly in terms of cinematic depictions.”
Still, for now Oyelowo’s cinematic aspirations are less concerned with the future than the past, with the actor set to star in both Amma Asante’s historical drama A United Kingdom later this year and sports biopic Queen of Katwe this month, the latter of which tells the true story of a young Ugandan chess player called Phiona Mutesi who went on to become a champion and master of the game.
“I loved the point of view of the film, which is that the film is seen through a young girl’s eyes,” Oyelowo explained. “I don’t think I’ve seen a film, certainly not one that has a studio like Disney behind it, following an African girl from a slum who goes on to become a champion at anything. So for me that was amazing.
“The thing about the Disney logo, the Disney brand and why it’s so successful, is that audience have a sense of what they’re going to get. They’re going to get something life-affirming, they’re going to get something family-friendly.
“But with this, we didn’t shy away from the grit, we didn’t shy away from the challenges of life in that place. But you still have a kind of Cinderella story in there as well.”
He concluded: “We need a certain degree of success for people to come back again and again to make this kind of movie. But you know, the audience reaction thus far bodes well.”
Queen of Katwe will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 21st October