David Oyelowo Is Working To “Normalize The Marginalized” With Production Company Yoruba Saxon And Streamer Mansa

David Oyelowo

David Oyelowo Michael Buckner for Deadline

Near the end of the miniseries Lawmen: Bass Reeves, David Oyelowo’s titular character is told something all too familiar to many unsung real-life heroes: “No one’s gonna ever know, but you made history today.”

“You can just imagine how many people from marginalized communities that is the truth for,” he says. “People who very much had a real hand in building this country, and whether it’s their history not being taught … or that their contribution to history hasn’t been valued in the same way, which is why getting this show made was an obsession.”

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That obsession took the form of Yoruba Saxon, a talent-led production company Oyelowo created with his wife Jessica in 2014, though his desire to produce actually came from his “accidental experience” of helping to put together Ava DuVernay’s Selma years before. “I didn’t realize those moves that go on to lead to the project being made was producing, I just knew that I had this deep desire to play [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] and I just kept chipping away to get it made.”

david oyelowo is working to “normalize the marginalized” with production company yoruba saxon and streamer mansa

David Oyelewo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves. Lauren Smith/Paramount+

Oyelowo’s experience on Selma shaped Yoruba Saxon in many ways, including their first governing principle: perspective. “In 2007, when I first read the script, it was a white male director, then it went to another white male, then a Black man, then another Black man, and then eventually it was directed by a Black woman,” he says. “Each time, you saw the narrative slightly shift on the basis of their own bias and perspective.” The shift was so great, that the story of Selma was initially centered on Lyndon B. Johnson, with Dr. King as a side character. “By the time it got to Ava DuVernay over that seven-year period, not only was Dr. King the protagonist, but the women in the movement were also front and center.”

david oyelowo is working to “normalize the marginalized” with production company yoruba saxon and streamer mansa

David Oyelowo (center) as Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo (right) as Coretta Scott King. Atsushi Nishijima/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Their second governing principle being to “normalize the marginalized,” Yoruba Saxon was created with the intent to not just bring less traditional narratives to the screen, but to make them commonplace. “How do we have it so Bass Reeves isn’t anomalous? That Queen of Katwe isn’t anomalous, that Selma isn’t anomalous?” questions Oyelowo. “Because in our business, we constantly talk about comparisons. If you have very few comps, that becomes an excuse not to make it because you don’t have enough data … so there’s a lot of wood to chop to get to the point where some of these narratives are being normalized.”

That lack of comps was just one of the reasons Lawmen: Bass Reeves took nearly a decade to get made. “It’s no secret that shows or films centering on Black people traditionally have been deemed to have less value, less reach, less potential for remuneration, all of which is not true, and which Bass Reeves went on to disprove,” he says. With the most-watched series premiere on Paramount+ of 2023, Oyelowo proved that a Black-led series has global appeal, no matter what some might believe. “We were coming up against all of these false notions. It’s the only explanation you can find and/or give for a character that is that cinematic, that interesting, steeped in a genre that is that beloved … and in the 150 years since the events that he lived, we haven’t had a show that properly centers him in a major way.”

david oyelowo is working to “normalize the marginalized” with production company yoruba saxon and streamer mansa

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves Lauren Smith/Paramount+

The success of the Paramount+ series has provided an example of what can be accomplished if a studio trusts their creatives to do something a little different. “In lieu of comps, you want successes, which is where a Bass Reeves becomes very useful,” he says. “You want successes to be able to go, ‘Listen, when Paramount trusted us with something that felt a little uncomfortable, they were rewarded for it. Trust us.’ Now, the chances are that you are going to fail as well as succeed, but that is where you are constantly trying to find, as we call them, the wins on the board. And it’s terrifying. It’s not for the faint of heart, but this is the business that we’re in.”

After seven film productions, including the Oscar-nominated 2023 live-action short The After, Lawmen: Bass Reeves is just the beginning of Yoruba Saxon’s foray into the television space. The production company has recently signed a first-look deal with Apple TV+, which Oyelowo sought after working on Silo and seeing the autonomy they gave series’ creator Graham Yost. “The amazing thing about Apple is that they know what they know and they know what they don’t,” he says. “They know what good business looks like, but they’re still young when it comes to being creators of content, and that means that their partnerships with creatives are true.”

Their first collaboration, Government Cheese, is already in the works and Oyelowo says they are off to a “very robust and fruitful” start. “Our show follows a Black family in the valley in the late ’60s trying to get their own piece of the American dream while eating government cheese.” The title comes from the term for processed cheese provided as government subsidized food for people dependent on welfare or food stamps, “a lot of them Black and brown people… It’s a parabolic, absurdist, surreal comedy and the title hints at that.”

In a time where many legacy studios are relying heavily on maintaining their old IP, Oyelowo says he is “incredibly excited” to have the first-look deal at Apple. “The great thing about Apple is that an Apple original is actually a very real thing. A lot of the time it’s an original idea because they don’t have a library to rely on. They don’t have all this IP to continue to mine, and that’s incredibly exciting for a creative person who likes to color outside the lines of what we’ve already done or already seen.”

While Yoruba Saxon is seeing success with streaming currently, Oyelowo remarks about experiences he and other Black creatives have had with studios in the past. “You have this experience of making things that, at some point, you have to hand over to someone else in the hope that they value it as much as you do. It’s a real thing that people can either low ball you in buying the film, or they can undervalue the project in how they distribute and market it, and then they can put it on or take it off the platform whenever they choose… and shows and films centering Black and brown people can often be of less value because so many of the decision makers, the gatekeepers, the curators are not part of the demographic.”

david oyelowo is working to “normalize the marginalized” with production company yoruba saxon and streamer mansa

Oyelowo in The After. Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection

Finding the situation “untenable,” Oyelowo worked with Nate Parker, Chiké Okonkwo and Zak Tanjeloff to co-found Mansa in April 2023. “Much like producing, Mansa started out of necessity.” Mansa is a free, ad-supported streaming platform with a focus on Black culture for a global audience. “It’s a place where those shows that are traditionally undervalued elsewhere can be valued on a platform by an audience that are engaging with it because they see value in those projects.”

david oyelowo is working to “normalize the marginalized” with production company yoruba saxon and streamer mansa

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Disruptors/Cannes magazine here.

The most important aspect of the platform for Oyelowo is the curation, which he says is important for engagement. “It’s values-based, and I don’t mean in terms of morality, but in terms of, ‘What are you placing value on?’ There are things that Black and brown people globally place value on that curators don’t. They assimilate Black culture and they repackage Black culture, but they don’t necessarily value it in a way that puts it front and center. But on a platform like Mansa, we don’t just acknowledge that Black culture probably drives the culture—when you think of music, sport, fashion, literature—we actually put it front and center in that narrative. It’s something that is more integrated and organic to the platform.”

Just as his journey to producing first started with Selma, Oyelowo’s journey seems to have come full circle with a recent Mansa deal. “We literally just closed a deal with my dear friend Ava DuVernay for some of her films,” he says with a smile. “Not only ones that she’s made, but ones that she has distributed through [her distribution company] Array. That’s just the latest one we’re very excited about, but so many of them are to do with preexisting libraries that, to be honest, just sat there not being platformed. You have all these creatives who sold their work for a pittance and don’t know why no one’s seeing it. Now if you go on Mansa, that is no longer the case.”

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