David Oyelowo: ‘Game of Thrones’ purposefully marginalizes people of color

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David Oyelowo is currently starring in Queen of Katwe, which probably won’t earn him any awards, but it’s an important film for him and his career. Oyelowo – who is British by birth and an American by choice – has talked before about how he came to realize that as an actor of color, he had a better shot at more consistent work in America than his own country. Oyelowo ends up talking about racial issues in the film and television industry quite often, and as he promotes Queen of Katwe, he ended up riffing on the most popular TV show around these days: Game of Thrones. It’s not up for debate that GoT is not a diverse show. You can count the number of significant roles for actors of color on one hand. So what does it all mean? For Oyelowo, it means that GoT could totally be more diverse but they choose not to.

On Game of Thrones & secondary characters: “The fact that they put any ethnic minorities in that means that there should be space for bigger characters. 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.’ You are interspersing people of colour into it 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.”

On Doctor Who maybe becoming a woman or a Doctor of Color. “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. 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.”

On John Boyega being cast in The Force Awakens: “Trust me, there was resistance. 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.”

[From Radio Times]

I think his point about GoT including people of color in the “margins” of storylines is well-put. There are two notable exceptions: Khal Drogo, played by Jason Momoa, and Pedro Pascal’s Prince Oberyn. Both “ethnic minority” actors playing the centerpiece storylines for one season before they were (spoiler) both killed. But I’m often bothered by what the writers do and don’t do for Missandei and Grey Worm, two of the Khaleesi’s closest advisors… until Tyrion turned up and then it was all awkwardness and weird periphery storylines. Oyelowo is right – Game of Thrones could go anywhere with some of their casting choices but they generally like to keep it… pretty white.

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Photos courtesy of WENN, HBO.

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53 Responses to “David Oyelowo: ‘Game of Thrones’ purposefully marginalizes people of color”

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  1. Locke Lamora says:

    That’s often a problem in ( mainstream popular) fantasy literature. They tend to be set in western medieval worlds and all POC characters are either marginalised or stereotyped/villified/barbarised which is horrible. You would think that setting a story in a fantasy universe would make room for more diversitYy, but sadly that’s often not he case.

    • Keats says:

      Came here to say exactly this. As a nerd child I honestly never noticed. As a nerd adult, though, man is it hard to miss.

    • I Choose Me says:

      You are so right. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy literature and the absence of POC is noticeable and depressing. And if they are included they usually fall prey to the usual tropes of being savage or servant class. I’ve made a conscious choice to start seeking out literature written by POC as long as it’s well written with a story and characters I can get behind. Currently reading Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

    • Val says:

      Yeah that is true. Although with books the advantage is that you can choose to imagine the people as you wish them to be.
      It’s unfortunate that he’s chosen GoT as an example for lack of diversity, rather than another TV show that isn’t based on a book. I get it, but it’s more of a question (like you said) of fantasy literature, rather than TV casting decisions.

  2. Lucy says:

    As a GOT fan, I can’t argue here. That is definitely one of the show’s weakest points. Also, I had always been under the impression that diversity issues weren’t such a problem in the British entertainment industry. Guess I was wrong.

    • Sixer says:

      Exactly the same issues, compounded by the serious acting world in the UK being dominated by class privilege thus also excluding POC. It’s much better now than it was, I will say that. But the industry stateside is exponentially bigger, so even with the issues, you’ve got more chance of getting work. Also, it pays more! It’s not as though only black and brown Brit actors are trying their hand in the US, you know?

      I want to like Oyelowo. He’s a fine actor and he never backs down or compromises when he’s talking about race issues. I admire that.

      But he once gave an interview in which he said God spoke to him and told him he would play MLK and he was quite creepy about it. It totally put me off.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        I read that interview too. He’s a pretty hardcore Christian.

        Where on the class spectrum does he fall? He seems quite posh too.

      • Sixer says:

        Yes, he is. I always think of that overt religiosity as a better fit with the US than with the UK, but it isn’t uncommon in black Londoners. It may well be a part of why he is happier stateside, though?

        The interview *really* put me off him but to be fair, that’s just my own bias. I am creeped out by people who think God speaks directly to them. How arrogant! But that might just be because I’m an atheist and I don’t really understand how religious people communicate their relationship with God.

        Solidly middle class, I would say. IIRC, he was born in the UK but spent most of his childhood in Nigeria, then came back to the UK as a teenager. So he wouldn’t really be entrenched in the British reproducing class system. That siad, hasn’t he got some Nigerian royalty in his ancestry?

        (Chiwetel Ejiofor is a good example of a properly posh black British actor – elite public school education, etc.)

      • Santia says:

        Agnostic here – some notion of spirituality, but not religious. My sister is a born again Christian and said God “spoke” to her for many years. I finally asked her what God was saying to her, what was his voice like, was he American-sounding, etc. Ultimately, she conceded that what she was calling “God” was really more of a strong emotion/feeling about a particular choice. I think we all have that, whether we call it our subconscious, the universe, etc. Once she was able to articulate what it was, I was no longer creeped out by people saying God “spoke” to them. Just my two cents.

      • LAK says:

        Sixer: Religion is definitely a DL thing in the UK. It won’t score points in the same way it does in America. If anything, it puts people off despite the UK not being a truly secular country in the manner of former communist countries though we try.

    • KatYork says:

      Dorne is Royals and all non white. Can we not nit pick all. White is a color and not an ethnicity.

  3. Pri says:

    American by choice….odd statement. I’d say he built his career here. He is probably on a work visa, not on a American by choice visa.

  4. Nikki says:

    I am a huge fan of this show, but it is so weird and inexplicable to see how few minorities are featured in prominent roles. How is this still happening??
    I can maybe understand why in casting season 1, the writers/producers wanted to stay faithful to book descriptions of characters, and Martin’s books are pretty much all white. They needed the book-nerds to like and watch the show to make it a success, and nothing pisses off racist fan-boys more than minorities cast in “white” roles. But since season 1, the show has been a huge success and has moved well beyond the books. They have also introduced dozens of major characters starting in season 2. Why are they still basically all white?

    • Lena says:

      and the one that me the books really pretty much specified using non-white characters (the sandsnskes and the whole Dorne plot actually) they cut the material way down and made it all about two white characters (Jaime and bron) and reduced the female characters of colors to barely more than a male fantasy.

      • Chinoiserie says:

        The characters were villains and not fantasy and Arianne was cut for time. Ellaria was expanded in return, the complainer about that storyline can be so silly sometimes. You can say it was no good but you can see why it was done and it was not some racist notion.

        The show made Sallador Saan and Xaro black and expanded roles of Missandei and Grey Worm. The show could do better but in this case the faitfullness to the source material is real issue. There is barely any people whose ethnicitity can essily be changed. Daario maybe and some minor charcaters. The world building aspects the story has not been changed so ethnicitied remain the same. I kind of think Martin should have made the first men to be Inuit looking. So the windlings and the Starks and other Northeners and Iron Islanders would have that look (the Windlings more since no mixing with Andals). That would have been natural and unique. But the first book was written in the 90s so I guess this was not in Martin’s mind and drawing from real European history was his passion and there are a lot saxon and Scandinavian influence there. But I think the dothraki expecially is problematic from Martin and at least the show has included those charcater more and made Drogo a better character.

      • LAK says:

        The early books are drawing heavily from the war of the roses in English History and the main characters are based on the warring families of that period.

  5. marc kile says:

    Point to a show that appeals to every one and i’ll gladly tune in youcan’t please everyone.
    There is some t.v that’s really in need of deversity and some that just need a little
    nudge in the right direction in terms of casting and story line.

  6. Jade says:

    Game of thrones also created a role for Peter Dinklage to shine, im not sure he would be cast in most films or tv shows, so there is that. Also most characters on GOT die, nobody is safe!

    • Locke Lamora says:

      Martin created that role, Tyrion wasn’t created specifically for the series, and props to him for that. But the show deviated so much from the books and added so many characters, I don’t see why some of them couldn’t be POC.

      • Jade says:

        Yes I’m aware that Martin created that character but to me diversity is more than just seeing POC on tv but all kinds of people, people who don’t meet the typical criteria of what we normally see on tv. Yes kit, Emilia etc are all so typical of Hollywood but Peter is incredible and I would be blown away to see him cast as the love interest in a film.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        Oh, then I misunderstood you. And yes, I agree.

  7. crujonomub says:

    I choose not to watch GoT because I can’t unsee the #WhiteSaviour vibes Khaleesi is giving off.

    This GoT scene made me so uncomfortable, it’s lowkey racist: https://mediadiversityuk.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/49563_600.jpg?w=667 + https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/78/GOT-S03-E10_Mhysa.png

    The juxtaposition of the uncivilised. barbarian, PoC against the white saviour hero who will bring order and prosperity to them lol, I’m not here for it.

    • Val says:

      To be fair, Dany didn’t really save anyone… she mostly arrived and made a mess of things.

      But yes I wish the books had more background on the “minority” societies.

    • Original T.C. says:

      The TV show sometimes dumbs things from the books and the Dany “white-savior” episode is one of them. The POV is Dany’S not the enslaved people. It is an example of Dany’s hubris and a mockery of the White savior troupe. *She’s* the one that ends up needing saving for her arrogance and ignorance.

      GOT is a book series for people who are bored with the old happily ever after, simple stories and predictable “good guy always wins”. The books are so much richer than the TV show. And have lots of female fans as well as people of color. The TV show makes it Whiter by choice.

      • Justjj says:

        I also think she white saviours around and it’s awkward at times. Also the Dorne storyline is so disappointing now. GoT does exclude people of color, it’s true.

    • SKF says:

      Yeah… that was uncomfortable. The thing is, in the books the slaves are of all races and colours and a big chunk of them have the same colouring as her – the ones from Lys. I found that choice in the show really icky. I have since read that the reason for it is that they were filming in countries populated by POC and they did call-outs for extras and used who they got. I do think they should have worked hard to avoid that though. Although the thing is, she “saves” them initially in the books but then it all gets subverted and turned on its head because despite her best intentions, she’s not a great leader.

  8. Sasha says:

    GoT is trash from the beginning to the end, the issues are too numerous to even discuss. It is nothing but issues. My main issue is the mainstreaming the enjoyment of watching graphic violence. It desensitizes people. And then presenting everyone as barbarians, without any kind of honor or moral compass. Even in Middle Ages or Dark Ages that wasn’t true. And … I have to stop. As I said – it is nothing but issues.

    It pains me that GoT is so popular. That tells me bad things about our society.

    • Locke Lamora says:

      I like the fact that most characthers are grey. Troughout history nobility and people in power rarely had honor or a morla compass. They wouldn’t be nobility otherwise.
      But the show does have a lot of blind spots, that is true.

      • Sasha says:

        Disagree there. Aristocracy/ nobility were entitled but there were plenty of them who were just average people, they weren’t raving barbarians like they are in GoT.

        In Russian history for example there was 1825 December revolt led by aristocrats against the monarchy. They wanted some limits on the power of the monarchy and abolishment of slavery. The leaders were executed, the rest were sent to Siberian mines. These were honorable people who loved their country. There are plenty of examples in history of some aristocrats being decent human beings.

        In GoT everyone is awful and the awfulness is normalized.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        Look, there are examples of honorable nobility everywhere. But for the most part, I don’t believe there was much honor there. Mostly self-interest. Besides, they became nobility because their ancestors were luckier and more ruthless than others.

      • Sasha says:

        The same argument could be made about half of the Western world population. People who are born in the Western countries are at the top of the food chain just by the luck of birth. And most of them don’t concern themselves much with struggles of the 3rd world counties populations. Or even poor in their own countries. But it doesn’t make them heartless barbarians from GoT.

        To your point about the ancestors – it is the same thing as well. Much of the Western countries and by extent their populations acquired dominant position and wealth through colonization – British Empire in case of the UK, genocide of Native Americans in case of the US.
        We can’t hold sins of prior generations against their descendants.

    • Elaine says:

      Y-E-S to the desensitizing!

      I STOPPED watching it because I constantly felt manipulated. Watching it became a ‘game of endurance’.

      Like: ‘how much can I take?’
      ‘how tough/strong/cool am I to watch yet another rape scene’
      ‘Yeah, I’m sooo above it all. This is my entertainment. Bring on the beheadings.’

      Finally, it just became utterly predictable.

      Someone likable and/or vulnerable is onscreen? See them SUFFER!! Person drinking water or simply standing still? Watch them BURN!!

      After awhile, I just had to laugh.

    • Santia says:

      When you think about the fact that America was “civilized” through raping and pillaging and slavery, you realize that the “gentle nobility” is a bit of a myth. People in power (be they nobles, aristocrats, politicians or plain rich people) want to remain in power and will do so by any means necessary.

      • Sasha says:

        It is not black and white, that is all I am saying. But this discussion became a tangent. My initial point was that the all out violence and lack of loyalty like we are seeing in GoT was never the accepted norm. When it happened during wars people didn’t exactly go back home to their wives and bragged about it in “gentle” company. They knew it was wrong even then. And then further making this into entertainment just is not understandable.

        What is the entertainment value of watching graphic rapes or torture? But apparently it is very popular.

    • TyrantDestroyed says:

      Yes to everything you said!

    • Val says:

      Honestly what bothered me most when I tried to watch the show is the use of soft porn to “sell”.
      In the books it’s fine, but in the show it’s so…gratuitous.

    • Original T.C. says:

      It’s an anti-war book just like The Lord of the rings and the Hunger Games but focuses on deconstructing normal fantasy troupes. Rape has been used as a crime against humanity from the beginning of time. Most book readers do not get sensitized to it nor to the death of a beloved character. A good storyteller makes sure the reader feels outraged each time.

  9. Marty says:

    He’s pretty spot on. GoT has some great characters, but I lost my enthusiasm for this show a long time ago.

  10. Aiobhan Targaryen says:

    He is right. Even though I am still side-eyeing him about his participation in Nina, he is right.

    It would have been tricky to do but he could have made the families in the different kingdoms more diverse. There is nothing about the Tyrells or Davos that would change if he made them black or of asian descent. Littlefinger or Varys’ races could also be changed and still keep the core characteristics of their personalities. Khal Drago could have been expanded as well.

    The only family that would have to really stay the same for me would be the Targaryens. While I do like the idea of a fantasy society that was shaped by black or any other people of color, this would only really work for Dany ( a main character in the books and show). (Her mother would have to be black and from the Summer Isle since that is where all the black people are from in the books. ) I don’t feel comfortable with Rhaegar being a black man when Lyanna, a white woman, is the victim of a supposed kidnapping and possible rape. Aerys being crazy is just as bad. Too many social implications that some neck beard and beardette fans of the show and books would exploit to be openly racist.

    I read someone where that GRRM thought about making the Targs black after one of the books came out, but he came to the conclusion that this would not have worked with the story he was telling. I agree because there is no way he would have been able to hide Jon’s parentage if “you know who” was black. Plus, go back to my original statement about the optics of black/brown people being the villains with white heroes all the time.

    He (and the writers of the show) could have given Missandei and Greyworm more to do in the books and show though. Hell Selmy, her most trusted adviser in the books after Jorah, could have gone in any racial direction. as well.

  11. TOPgirl says:

    And where the f–k are the Asians in GOT??

    • Ennie says:

      East Asians looking people are in the far lands of Yi Ti, a port in the Jade Sea. There have been sightings, a Wolverine Japanese actress was cast as a red priestress one or two seasons back.
      Westeros is mainly white, while Essos scenes show much more diverse people in markets, etc. the story is clearly set in Westeros. In the books, people with Valyrian descent look white but exotic, with funny eye colors and
      Different colors of hair.
      I am not sad for the mostly lack of hispanics in the show, the native Americans are
      Probably in the unknown Soythoros. I love love love the importance of a small person and an excellent actor like Dinklage in the story. Giving more importance to smaller characters is difficult in such a show, they are already cutting lots of side stories and important events to make it only two smaller seasons more. Greyworm and Missandei’s story is beautiful, , and nonexistent in the books already.
      I read Complaints from book fans of how instead of giving their side story, writers should better give more insight to the backstory, for example.

  12. Soprano says:

    I love Carice van Houten and she’s a marvelous actress, but they could have cast a POC as Melisandre and it would have been fine in the context of the story. Same goes for Daario

  13. Jo 'Mama' Besser says:

    Yeah, okay, Red Tails.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I think we might be more careful about saying that Oyelowo thinks the show isn’t diverse, when what he said is he wants more people of color, not that there’s no diversity.

    As far as actors of non-European descent playing speaking characters? Yes, the show could definitely add more. Off the top of my head, I can only think of (out of a show with how many characters through the years?):
    Drogo
    Ellaria Sand
    Obara Sand
    Nymeria Sand
    Doran Martell
    Oberyn Martell
    Xaro
    Sallador
    Missandei
    Grey Worm
    Areo Hotah

    Outside of skin color, though, if (like me) you think “diversity” means more than healthy hetero male, the show’s actually doing a pretty good job.

    Strong Women:
    Arya
    Sansa
    Brienne
    Olenna
    Margaery
    Cersei
    Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes

    Physical Handicaps:
    Tyrion
    Jaime
    Davos
    Aemon
    Shireen
    Bran
    Sandor
    Theon
    Varys
    Doran

    Mental Handicaps:
    Hodor
    Robin

    Mental Illness:
    Lysa
    Ramsay
    Joffrey
    Theon
    Cersei

    Obesity:
    Sam
    Walda Frey
    Robert
    Varys
    Hot Pie
    (I’ll never forgive them for making Lollys Stokeworth into a skinny little blonde, though – as written in the books, she had some potential, especially after getting away from her abusive mother and sister. I had the perfect actress in mind for her)

    LGBT:
    Loras
    Renly
    Dany
    Yara
    Oberyn
    Ellaria

    Other categories of diversity can include such things as socio-economic status and lack of education:
    Davos

    Illegitimacy:
    Jon
    Gendry
    Ramsay

    Extreme Height:
    Brienne
    Gregor
    Hodor

    It can even mean things like just not looking like other people in your group, like Brienne, or not having the same interests as those around you, like Sam and Arya.

    So, is Game of Thrones lacking people of color? Yes.

    Is Game of Thrones lacking diversity? Absolutely not.

  15. jc126 says:

    Big numbers of important characters have been cut from the show, to the chagrin of those of us who have read all the books and watch the show, but we should have more storylines to satisfy people who want to change the source material to reflect diversity? I can’t get behind anyone telling others how or what to write, or who to write about. Write your own story if you want others’ art to look a certain way.

    • mridha says:

      well if you are earning $$$ from it then you have to listen to the consumer. After all they are paying for it.

      • jc126 says:

        Art should be influenced by its customers? It’s supposed to be the creation of the artist. Consumers vote by supporting art, or not.

  16. Fara55 says:

    Game of Thrones not having any of the main, MAIN characters be anything but white is similar to the Harry Potter books and films. And you know why that is? the authors. Now I am the biggest fan of GRRM and JKR, but they have created their worlds and it is from a very white perspective. And they aren’t racists or discriminating. Not At All. I think they only included characters of color for the sub plots because they wanted to create characters with as much authenticity. Let me also say one thing: I cannot stand it to read books by authors who try to write characters with a different ethnicity and cultural or class background when said authors simply fail of making them believable.