THE actor David Oyelowo has criticised television executives for ignoring the real stories from British history by failing to cast black actors in period dramas.
The 38-year-old former Spooks actor left Britain in 2007 to pursue his career in the US, landing a number of big-screen roles including as Martin Luther King in the new Hollywood film Selma.
He told the Radio Times that the dearth of roles in Britain for black actors had left him and his contemporaries frustrated.
“There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in LA.
“We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call the Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the 50th iteration of Pride and Prejudice,” he said. “We’re not in those. And it’s frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.”
Oyelowo, a leading name in the Royal Shakespeare Company in his early 20s, said: “We make period dramas here [in Britain], but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years.
“I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with green-light power, and what they said was that if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand.
“And I thought, OK, you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So I’ve got to get out.”
Oyelowo said that there were “people as talented as me if not more so, who chose to stay and aren’t getting the opportunities worthy of them. And I can’t say the same of my white peers”.
His comments come after The Imitation Game star Benedict Cumberbatch highlighted the lack of diversity on British screens.
Oyelowo said: “The difference between myself and Benedict and Eddie [Redmayne] is they can choose to live here and still have a Hollywood career. Because though they can do American movies, their bread and butter in Britain is period films. But had I stayed here, I wouldn’t be in Selma. That’s just a fact.”
Oyelowo said that Britain still had a “fixation with class”, adding: “Everything is about class in Britain. Class is something you’re born into, and you can’t earn your way out.”
Last year, stars including Idris Elba and Lenny Henry told TV bosses they were “dismayed” at the poor numbers of people from ethnic minorities working in the industry.
Figures including Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall, comic Harry Hill and actor David Harewood, who left the UK to land a role in the US series Homeland, signed an open letter – sent to BBC director general Tony Hall, ITV chief executive Adam Crozier, and the bosses of BSkyB, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – calling for “a ringfenced pot of money” for black, Asian and minority ethnic programmes.