David Oyelowo looked back at his own childhood when he was shooting his directorial debut “The Water Man.”

The fantasy drama stars “This Is Us” actor Lonnie Chavis as Gunner, a young boy who goes searching for the Water Man, a centuries-old being in the forest believed to have the power to bring the dead back to life. Gunner looks for the Water Man in hopes he’ll help his mother (Rosario Dawson), who is dying from cancer. Rounding out the cast are Oyelowo as Gunner’s father, Amiah Miller as a friend who leads Gunner through the woods, as well as Alfred Molina and Maria Bello.

“The film is partly inspired by [the] films I grew up loving, like ‘E.T.’ A lot of them directed by the amazing Steven Spielberg,” Oyelowo said while promoting “The Water Man” at Variety‘s Virtual TIFF Studio, presented by Canada Goose. “But the truth of the matter is I didn’t see myself in those movies even though I related to those characters. So one of the amazing things for me is getting to make a film for a family that looks like mine, a boy who looks like I did and looks like my three sons get to be front and center.”

He continued, “This is about my 12-year-old self and watching those movies that I love and not seeing myself represented in them and not even realizing that was something I lacked. I just thought that’s what the world looks like — the world is about white people.”

Oyelowo said it’s important for people to see themselves represented on TV and in movies. “We all go to storytelling to see ourselves, to learn about ourselves or to learn about other people within whom we see ourselves,” he said.

To learn about others creates empathy for one another, he said. “I know that if I had seen a character like Gunner when I was 12, a family like this when I was 12, it would shift something about my perspective of whether I fit in the world,” he said.

Oyelowo wasn’t originally supposed to direct “The Water Man.” He decided to do it after the first director left the project. “We had cast Lonnie and we had him for a window because he does ‘This Is Us,’” Oyelowo explained. “Anyone who makes movies knows that if you have the money, you have your lead and you have a window, you go!”

Chavis said working with Oyelowo was like being led by a “superhero.”

“[He] inspires me that I can be anything that I want to be,” he said. “Mr. David definitely changed my perspective.”

He added, “In my 12 years of living I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that represents such a powerful love in a Black family.”


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