Why David Oyelowo played a Nigerian astronaut in Netflix film ‘The Midnight Sky’

David Oyelowo

David Oyelowo isn’t a stranger to the world of sci-fi. In 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, he plays a profit-obsessed business mogul and antagonist and in 2014, he voices Agent Kallus, a villain in the animated series Star Wars Rebels. For the 2018 Netflix deep-space horror The Cloverfield Paradox, Oyelowo is an astronaut who along with others tries to survive a dark alternate reality.

In 2020, the 44-year-old British-Nigerian star returns to space in the George Clooney post-apocalyptic drama The Midnight Sky, already showing in select U.S. theaters and streaming today on Netflix. A film about fathers and daughters, a blighted earth, the search for a new home on another planet, Clooney’s latest directorial efforts is based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton and offers new tweaks, such as Oyelowo playing Nigerian astronaut Commander Adewole of spaceship Aether.

”It makes me feel incredibly proud and I’m very grateful to George Clooney as well because the role was originally written as a white character called Commander Harper, ”Oyelowo says, ”As a proud Nigerian, as someone who recognises how important it is to have real representation especially when you have a film that is about a crew of people trying to save the future of humanity and to not have Africa represented felt unfortunate, so I asked Clooney if I could change my name and I hope it makes a lot of Africans very happy.”

Although the story revolves around Clooney’s desolate character Augustine Lofthouse, waiting out the end of his life in the Arctic Circle, it also cuts to Adewole’s crew of astronauts who are returning from a two-year mission to see if a newly discovered moon of Jupiter is livable. Earth has been rendered inhabitable due to a mysterious catastrophe, and Lofthouse tries to warn them about the fate of their planet when he makes contact.

This fictional tale reproduces a disturbing picture of our world, ravaged by coronavirus and the race towards saving it. ”Luckily for us we finished this film before the pandemic,” says Oyelowo, ”we wrapped up early February and we went home then about a month, we were told not to leave the house but for George, he had to do the post-production of the film whilst in lockdown and that made things quite complicated in terms of editing and music score and visual effects. But I think shooting a film of this scale while in a pandemic would have been very challenging.”

Astronauts Sully (Felicity Jones) and Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) in The Midnight Sky / Photo: Netflix

For studios, the challenge has been finding ways to show their postponed movies to audiences amidst a global pandemic. The pivot to streaming was instantaneous, and with the paradigm-shifting move by Warner Bros. to release its 2021 movie slate on HBO Max and in theaters, it has drawn concerns about the ”death” of cinemas if more people stick to streaming and avoid cinemas altogether because of the pandemic.

Oyelowo says, ”I am a big fan of streaming because of its accessibility to so many more people but I’m also a huge fan of cinema. The Midnight Sky is also a film I would love to see in a movie theatre and I think what’s happening now that is phenomenal is that there’s a continuation of the audience being afforded choice. You can watch it on your phone, laptop, TV, you can watch it at the same time if it’s episodic television, you can break it up. The audience is the winner ultimately.”

”You also have to look at history, we went from plays to the movies with no talking and then talking was introduced and from there to black and white and to colour, and people panicked and said what will this do to other platforms that already had people’s attention and now recently with streamers. I don’t think cinemas are going to die. I think it’s just going to be different and different is not bad.”

Oyelowo’s co-stars like Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandelier, and Tiffany Boone also step into the post-apocalyptic frames of the movie, roaming the tableau of a world made beautiful and crisp with visual effects that as viewers, it makes us want to live there.

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