British actor explains why playing Martin Luther King Jr. is the role of a lifetime
The British actor David Oyelowo has taken on the role of a lifetime playing Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in the powerful new film Selma. But how is he coping with the off-screen controversy? Dave Calhoun meets him.
‘Hollywood still has a problem with black, powerful characters in the centre of their own narrative, driving their own destiny forward. If you play a subservient character, it lies comfortably within the self-fulfilling prophecy of what it means to be black in America.’ That’s British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, 38, talking to UK-based Channel 4 earlier this month after his powerful new film Selma was snubbed by the Oscars.
Oyelowo, who first caught our eye in British television drama Spooks in the early 2000s, plays Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as he organises voting rights marches in 1965 from Selma in Alabama to Montgomery. Director Ava DuVernay evokes it all with an urgency and horror that’s hard to watch.
We met Oxford-born Oyelowo – lucid, careful, and charming – in December when his film was already making waves beyond cinemas. He and his colleagues – including producer Oprah Winfrey – had just turned up to the film’s New York premiere wearing T-shirts stating ‘I Can’t Breathe’, a reference to the death last July of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African-American man, during his arrest by the NYPD.
For everyone involved, Selma is about much more than history. You can’t have predicted that you’d become a spokesperson for issues far beyond Selma? It’s become more topical than we thought it would! But, look, you make films to engage society. Hopefully those films are thought-provoking and hopefully they hold a mirror up to you and your life. I am stimulated by these conversations because I think that just having them causes change.
Did you and director Ava DuVernay set out to make a film that feels so urgent and immediate? We wanted to make a film that you couldn’t relegate to ‘historical drama’, with connotations of mothballs and something a bit fusty and stuffy. We wanted to humanise Dr King and not just accentuate his reputation as an iconic, legendary, historical figure. Also, we wanted the film to have an immediacy and a relevance, like it’s happening right in front of your eyes.
Has anybody taken issue with a British actor playing such a famous American? If Meryl Streep can play Margaret Thatcher, I can play Dr King! The truth is, this happens all the time. I was in The Last King of Scotland. Forest Whitaker played Idi Amin and could not be less Ugandan if he tried. Idris Elba played Mandela. I often think the less you know as an actor, the more fastidious you are about finding the person you’re playing.
You live in Los Angeles. Did you move to get better parts? Yes, I was getting wonderful TV and theatre opportunities in the UK, but it’s a smaller industry. So I hadn’t done many films at all. Certainly not sizeable ones or sizeable roles at the time. My wife and I and our two kids felt like we were starting again.
You’ve been there almost eight years. Do you feel more American? I don’t feel more American, but I have two Americans – we had a further two kids who were born in America. I know more about American history than British. I’ve made four other films that each looked at the African-American experience over the last 150 years. I’ve become a mini expert. Selma is out now in cinemas across Dubai.