In recent months, the racial tension in the country has slowly been reaching a kind of boiling point, fueled by the grand jury decisions in Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, and the subsequent protests that have sprung up all over the world in reaction to them. And so the release of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the civil rights biopic chronicling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work towards a Voting Rights Act, could not be more timely. While the film focuses on a distinct place and time in the United States, it echoes many of the current conversations surrounding racism and, in doing so, sheds a light on work that must be done in the future.
Rightfully, the film has already garnered critical praise and accolades for director DuVernay, who recently became the first Black woman director to get a Golden Globe nomination. And with a stellar supporting cast including Common, Tessa Thompson, Andre Holland and Oprah Winfrey, the film is a beacon of some of the best Black talent in Hollywood.
But what grounds the movie is the astounding performance by British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, who takes on the gargantuan task of playing King himself. Oyelowo, known for roles in Red Tails, Lincoln, and The Butler, strips away the artifice and iconography in his portrayal of King, leaving the one element that made the civil rights leader’s life so extraordinary—his humanity. Ahead of the film’s nationwide release, Oyelowo sat with ESSENCE.com to talk stepping into King’s iconic shoes, the current racial climate in America, and the future of Black cinema.
ESSENCE.com: You’re a Brit playing such an iconic American figure in the film. Did you feel daunted, at all, taking on the role Dr. King?
DAVID OYELOWO: I was never overwhelmed by it because I never focused on the icon. I never focused on what we as the public have projected onto him. What I focused on was finding the man, finding the father, finding the friend, finding the man who wasn't always sure. I believe we go to the movies to see ourselves, and to see yourself in Dr. King, I think is really an interesting idea. When you see him give a speech, when you see him talking to Lyndon B. Johnson, we impose upon him the greatness, but he didn't walk around thinking of himself, “I'm an icon,” do you know what I mean?
How do you as an actor find a balance between that real human and playing a person that everyone feels they know, right down to the cadences?
You have to tilt your hat to it, one of the things you can't afford to have is having people watching it going, “Well he doesn't sound anything like King, doesn't look anything like King, what am I watching?” You have to do as much of that work as you can, but I think ultimately what people connect to is the spirit. You know, what is the spirit of King? I knew that, yes, I had to gain weight, I had to get his rhythms, his physical mannerisms, as right as I could. But I always knew that the bigger task was the spirit. Who was this man emotionally?
You’ve worked with Ava DuVernay before, on her first feature, Middle of Nowhere. What was it like working on this particular film?
It was very collaborative, and I knew it would be because it had been when we did Middle of Nowhere together. I was a huge advocate of her directing this film. Selfishly, I needed to be under the gaze of someone I trust, someone who would give me confidence, someone who had a similar cinematic vision for the film that I did, which was that we can't just accentuate the reputation of this man as a world figure. And that's what she does so brilliantly. She came along and rewrote the script, changed the focus.
What were the earlier incarnations of the script like?
Yeah, originally the film was more focused on LBJ. It was more of a tete-a-tete between LBJ, and was in the vein of sort of those white savior movies of the past. I was so thankful that she came along and made it about the man and the movement. She accentuated the role of the women, and those are all things I think make the film feel more satisfying, and feel more vibrant and immediate. You don't feel like you're watching a historical drama because it feels so imbued with authenticity, and immediacy, which wasn't there before.
Part of that vibrancy also comes from the fact that the film is so timely. It's coming out at a moment when we're dealing with Ferguson and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Do you feel that Selma is commenting on what we're going through right now?
Well, I think it does two things. It shows that it's ridiculous that the very act that was gained from this campaign, i.e. the Voting Rights Act, is now being dismantled. If you compare Selma and Ferguson, you can see that the country hasn't changed enough, and it's ridiculous to dismantle that act, but I think it's also encouraging to see young people coming together, and peaceful protests being what's actually happening now.
Back then the issue was voting rights, now it's police reform, and I truly believe that in the same way Dr. King was asking the President for federal intervention, to stop this game being rigged against Black people, we have to do the same thing in terms of asking federal intervention of the police. Who's gonna police the police? You can't have local prosecutors doing it, because it's a conflict of interest.
For you personally, what did you take away from playing Dr. King?
Huge admiration. I mean, these people were so young when they were doing this. Dr. King was 36 years old during the march. People don't even realize that because his bearing was so mature, he just seemed older than that, but he was 36 when he was doing that. I'm 38, you know, I cannot imagine doing what he did.
Last year was really a breakthrough year in terms of Black film, with movies like 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station. What are your hopes for Black cinema going forward?
I think the difference we're seeing now is that these films being made on a bigger scale are being made by Black people. A lot of those films were born out of the independent space—The Butler, Dear White People, Selma and so on. They're not films we are asking for permission to make. We are making them and then studios come along and distribute them because they're excellent. And I think that going forward what we have to do is not do what I feel we did in the past, which is gain a little bit of success and then hope that the studios are going to come to us to make content.
I think actors understand that it's not just about the payday on a studio movie, it's about a long career. The reason I did Middle of Nowhere is because it's not just about the money, it's about being able to wake up every day with a sense of pride in your heart that you've made something meaningful. I'd rather have less food on the table and be happy with what I do, than have more food on the table and have a shorter career.
This film and this performance have put you on Hollywood’s radar in a big way, and already you’re lined up for several new leading roles (including in Americanah opposite Lupita Nyong’o). Where do you hope to go, moving forward?
As an actor, it's not gonna change. You know, I'm not obsessed with being the lead. As long as it's with great filmmakers, great people, and hopefully a good part, I'll be there because I'm on a quest for getting better with every role I play.