Exclusive Interview: Mpho Koaho ("Black or White")

Black or White is a film that’s hoping to give people new things to think about when it comes to dealing with race relations, especially those involving multiracial families. Kevin Costner believes heavily in the film, and it’s a lot of his stories about the journey it took to bring Black or White to the screen that has put Black or White on the tongues of everyone who follows filmmaking.

Joining in the storytelling is Mpho Koaho, one of the actors in the film. I was happy to speak with Koaho about his role in the film, his take on Hollywood’s resistance towards certain films, and what fans can expect from his role in the upcoming season of Falling Skies.

Black or White is currently playing in theaters. Falling Skies comes back to TNT this summer.


 

COLOR: How would you describe your character in the movie?

Mpho Koaho: I play Duvan Araga. He is a Nigerian tutor, so to speak. He’s a pretty smart gentleman in his own right. Kevin Costner’s character, Elliot, hires him to tutor his young granddaughter, and I subsequently end up tutoring him as well [laughs] and I drive him around because he’s a bit of a drunkard. Duvan is a very likable, very driven, weird, awkward kind of guy. Very intelligent, and he’s written a paper on almost every subject you can think of. The most odd topics, as well, he’s analyzed and written a thesis on. He’s a quirky fellow.

He sounds like a cool character to play. 

Oh yeah, very much so. Those are the kind of roles you get excited for as an actor.

Would you say that the character drew you to the story, or were there other elements that made you want to be a part of the film?

I would say that it would have to be the story first, because initially, I read for a different character. I think I read for Reggie first. [Writer/director Mike Binder]called me and asked me to read for the Duvan character. My attention was initially drawn to the story, no doubt. The subject matter-you know, the read something like that and…when we shot it, it was during the Trayvon Martin [case]. So filming that movie, the subject matter, being a black man as well… just being drawn to that [story] and for that to be happening at the same time, it was definitely the life-changing experience, for sure.

To go along with that, Kevin Costner has told the press in several interviews how Black or White was his pet project, that he financed it himself after shopping it around to several different studios and them not wanting it. With that story, it made me think about the state of getting these kinds of stories told in Hollywood as it is. What do you think about how Hollywood is at this point when it comes to getting stories like Black or White told to the mainstream audience?

Clearly, there’s still a ways for Hollywood to go, considering that someone of Kevin Costner’s stature couldn’t get a film like this produced by a studio, you know what I mean? That tells you something. So it is a great thing, it’s amazing that Kevin is willing to put his own money in a project like this because, without question, it’s a story that needs to be told. Moreso, it’s subject matter that needs to be addressed…by all. What better way to give it to people than through entertainment, through the film medium?

Hollywood, in my opinion, clearly has a way to go. It’s great that films like Selma are getting the recognition that they’re getting, yet, could still get more in terms of Ava [DuVernay] getting recognized in the director’s category. Things like that. Without question, you have to be positive, though, at the end of the day. You can’t just be negative about it. We have to think that progress is being made at some level and with a film like this, I feel like we are. Even if the studio won’t help us produce, that happens. Many projects don’t get financed by studios. Many projects don’t get produced by studios; a lot of indie [filmmakers] have to put their own money into it. We’re not the first film this has happened to. But, clearly, who Kevin is, I’d like to think that most anything he puts forth will get produced.

I guess one positive that does come from the negative is that people like yourself and David Oyelowo talking about how tough it is for these films to get made in Hollywood and that brings awareness to others who might not know that this is actually a problem. It makes them aware that this is how it is and that it needs to be changed, making it easier for other films down the road to get made. 

You’re absolutely right, because awareness—and I love how you worded that and I use that all the time— if you become aware, it’s very much a word-of-mouth thing. And it trickles down, it really does. Awareness is a powerful thing.

Costner also said that this film helped him with his own opinions and thoughts about race relations and where America is right now. How do you think that this film will help others when they see it?

Specifically, race relations in this film, we touch on the plight of a biracial family a lot. That in itself can be a challenge and is a challenge to many a people, let alone a black person against a white person or a black family against a white family, so to speak. To have that integration within a family creates challenges that most people aren’t even aware of. Like I said, what better way to put forth this topic than through entertainment?

We’re giving people something they need to hear, something we need to talk about, and we’re trying to do it in an entertaining, positive, playful way. Yet, giving you a serious message at the same time. Because clearly, we have some issues we need to work out in the world when it comes to race and race relations. We don’t even realize the opinions people have on this subject. We don’t even realize how deep it is sometimes. Films like this really illustrate how much we do need to talk about it.

You’re part of a film that has a lot of star power, like Costner, Octavia Spencer and Anthony Mackie. What’s it like working with this cast?

The star power is heavy in this movie. We can’t forget Jennifer Ehle is in this film. Bill Burr is really making a  name for himself right now. Gillian Jacobs, who’s on Community [and] is a very, very gifted talent…And Miss Jillian Estell, the young upstart who really does a great job carrying this film. To be in a cast like this is like—all you want to do as an actor is do good work, and you really hope to work with awesome people every time. If you can trip and fall on that every now and then, that’s really cool. But this is as good as it gets, you know?

I was so fortunate, because Kevin’s legend speaks for itself. He’s a great man, as I call it. He’s so kind and he’s so complimentary of my work. He was so gracious to me and really made me feel like I deserved to be there. It was such a pleasure to work with him; he’s so professional [and] so good at what he does.

Octavia is like my big sister from day one. She really took me under her wing and put her arm around my shoulder and said, “I got you.” It was cool to be in shots with her…and I’m so pleased for all of her success recently; she’s, like, in every movie, it’s crazy.

Mackie—we did a film in 2004 called Haven. I’ve actually known Mackie for a while and that’s my big bro right there. It’s very easy to work with him, be around him…That’s another person’s success I’m very happy for as of late. He’s just a force. #TheFalcon is all I’ve got to say about that. When your homeboy’s a superhero, come on [laughs].

We kind of addressed this earlier, but what do you hope audiences take away from Black or White?

As I said earlier, it’s just entertainment first and foremost, so you want people to enjoy themselves when they come to the theater. You want them to laugh…get serious…enjoy themselves. You want them to experience a range of emotions, but at the end of the film, really feel like they’ve learned something or seen something from a different perspective or just making people feel good in general.

Especially considering the subject matter, you really want people to just look at things from all sides. To be able to objectively be able to understand what we go through and [that] love has no color. We really try to push that in this movie. We are all the same and the film really harps on that, especially with the custody battle. It really gets into which side is better for the young lady, the black side or the white side. You get to see what it takes to work through that. #LoveHasNoColor.

Finally, you’re also on Falling Skies and it’s coming back this summer. What can fans expect from the season?

The first thing I’d say is that we just finished shooting the final season of Falling Skies, unfortunately. All good things must come to an end, this is not the first show that’s ended…but fans can definitely expect a very big season. Unfortunately there’s too fewer episodes, but I feel like the production has done its best to really go out with a bang for the fans.

They can expect some cool things with my character. My character goes in a different direction for a little bit, so that should be interesting for people. I won’t say too much more than that. There are a couple new characters and who knows what happens. Do we win the war? Does the war continue? Do we all fly up in alien spaceships and go to another planet? Wouldn’t that be cool?

Mpho Koaho in Black or White. Photo credit: Tracey Bennett