In 'Selma,' British Actor Brings Outsider's Perspective To MLK

Jan 19, 2015
Originally published on February 5, 2015 2:00 pm

British actor David Oyelowo has been praised for his chameleon-like ability to embody different accents and roles with confidence and ease.

In a relatively short eight years in Hollywood, the London transplant has assembled an impressive portfolio of supporting roles in films by directors Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and J.C. Chandor. But it's his performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava Duvernay's Selma that has cemented his position as a leading man.

Oyelowo trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and broke through in 2000 in a landmark race-blind production of Henry VI by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although additional roles on stage and television followed, Oyelowo says he always aspired to "grace the American silver screen" and moved his family to Los Angeles in 2007.

Selma was one of the first scripts he read after arriving in Hollywood, and he says despite the apprehensions of directors once attached to the project, he felt God told him he was destined to play King.


Interview Highlights

On getting a "cinematic education" in African-American history

I played a Union soldier in Lincoln in 1865; I played an African-American fighter pilot in in Red Tails in the 1940s; I played a preacher in The Help in 1964; and then I played the son of a butler [in The Butler] going through the 20th century, being a freedom rider, in the sit-ins, a Black Panther and then a senator. And that 150 years of what it is to be black as an American in this country really prepared me for playing Dr. King.

On the controversy over the historical accuracy of Selma's Lyndon B. Johnson portrayal

My responsibility was to go find who that man was spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and historically, and I can stand by every choice I personally made. I also can stand by every choice the film made, but at the end of the day it is an artistic interpretation.

My point of view is if we're truly concerned with LBJ's legacy, the thing to be looking at is the fact that the Voting Right Acts, which he undeniably passed, is being eroded as we speak. As of June of 2013, Section 5, was removed — which meant that individual states could change their rules around voting — and they've done that. People are now being marginalized yet again in terms of being able to vote.

When you watch Selma and you see people losing their lives, leaving their homes, marching with Dr. King, making their voices heard, this was a promise that was a 102 years late. The Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863. ... I play a soldier in Lincoln who in 1865 says to the president of the day: "Maybe someday we'll get the vote." And the same actor in 1965 is still asking a president for the vote.

Now two things; if, like I say, we're truly concerned about controversy, that's what it should be about. The fact that the Supreme Court felt that the country has changed enough that we no longer don't need the Voting Rights Act to be as robust as it is ... Selma shows you that, yes, the country has changed, but not as much as we would like. And also hopefully the things that people get from watching the film is that this right is bought in blood, and therefore we must participate, or you lose the right to complain.

On what it's like to grow up black in Western countries

The truth of the matter is, what living in the West unfortunately does for you as a black person is it engenders in you a minority mentality. You are a minority and so therefore you live in a world where subliminally you are being told, or you are taking on, the fact that not every opportunity afforded within that society is open to you.

Whereas when I lived in Nigeria [from the age of 5 to 13] the notion of the color of my skin, the notion of opportunities afforded to me as a result, never occurred to me. And it does affect how you bounce out of bed. It does affect your ambition. It does affect your outlook on life.

I call it the [Bahamian-American actor] Sidney Poitier syndrome in that I think the reason he achieved what he did, the way he did, the time he did is because he grew up in a different society where he wasn't a minority. And so therefore when he came to this country he just couldn't understand the notion that everything on the plate wasn't his to eat. And he approached his career, he approached his ambition, he approached his work in that way and it was so undeniable that you just had get out of his way.

I think that if you are brought up in a culture whereby that is not the case you have a stance of combat, and that invariably means that you are spending more energy trying to bust through than be you. And I was a huge beneficiary of those years in Nigeria.

On the burden of expectations for "black films"

The thing, I think, about being black in the West, whether it's in Europe or America, is that everything you do has such an intense gaze upon it, because the opportunities are so sparse. So you always feel this need to be all things to all men for their salvation.

And what we don't get that you get if you're a white artist, or director or producer, or even the audience ... from a white point of view, you have so much context for what it is to be a human being. You have good movies, bad movies, sci-fi, romantic comedies, historical dramas, you have silly movies, you have very important films. You have all these different options that mean you don't have to kind of politicize or think about, "Is this painful for people to watch? Is this edifying for people to watch?" You can just be an artist and put your voice out there.

On how growing up partly in Nigeria helped him play Martin Luther King Jr., specifically

I know for a fact that when Lee Daniels, who was the director attached at the time I got cast, was in place he said: "David, the reason why I cast you as Dr. King is because you didn't come in with any of the baggage of this icon. You just came in and played the man." ...

You look at that historical figure, I imagine there are plenty of times when you're thinking, "You know what, Hollywood doesn't want this, I'm beneath it, my uncle's marched with him, my grandfather knew him," which is what you have a lot when you talk with a lot of African-Americans about Dr. King. I didn't have that. All I saw was an opportunity to put on display one of the greatest human beings, I think, who ever walked the planet and one of the greatest episodes in America's history — what an incredible thing to do.

On the ongoing legacy of slavery

I spoke to my dad just two weeks ago. My dad has tribal marks on his face. He has four gashes on his face and he has the word "bale" written on his stomach, which means "King" in the Yoruba language.

I was with him in London the other day and I've suddenly realized in this conversation that those tribal marks are a legacy of slavery. I thought they were sort of traditional markings that Nigerians had been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years.

He said, "No, no we have them because if we got taken by the slavers, this was the way that our people knew who we were when we got back." The hope was that you'd always get back. And I was astounded, because my mother has these tribal marks, my dad has these tribal marks, my brothers and I are the very first generation in 400-odd years not to have the tribal marks.

On how his Selma success helped his next project, Americanah, co-starring Lupita Nyong'o

The fact of the matter is if Lupita Nyong'o didn't exist in terms of her notoriety, her talent and who she is, if I wasn't afforded the opportunity to play Dr. King — even though that book is undeniably fantastic and lends itself beautifully to a cinematic treatment— that film would not get made if we hadn't been given the opportunities we've been given.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

"Selma" is the first major Hollywood production to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The actor who plays the American civil rights leader on screen is British, and we're going to learn more about him right now. His name is David Oyelowo. And NPR's Bilal Qureshi says that's a name you'll be hearing a lot in the future.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: At the recent Palm Springs Film Festival, actor Brad Pitt introduced the winner for Breakthrough Performance with this sing-along pronunciation guide.

(SOUNDBITE OF PALM SPRINGS FILM FESTIVAL)

BRAD PITT: (Singing) Oyel, Oyel, Oyelowo, Oyel-owo.

DAVID OYELOWO: Everything just went out of my head. All I could think is what a surreal moment to the point whereby they then called my name and I almost forgot to go on because I was laughing so hard. But yeah, the best PSA of my career for sure.

QURESHI: In just eight years in Hollywood, the British-Nigerian actor with the unfamiliar name has assembled an impressive portfolio of supporting roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Lincoln) What's your name, soldier?

OYELOWO: I'm Corporal Ira Clark, sir. Here with the Massachusetts Cavalry.

I played a Union soldier in "Lincoln" in 1865. I played an African-American fighter pilot in "Red Tails" in the 1940s. I played a preacher in "The Help" in 1964, and then I played the son of a butler going through the 20th century, being a Freedom Rider, in the sit-ins, a Black Panther and then a senator. And that 150 of what it is to be black as an American in this country really prepared me for playing Dr. King.

QURESHI: That performance in "Selma" has cemented his status as a leading man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) No more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard.

QURESHI: Oyelowo is a classically trained actor. And film critic Tim Cogshell says it shows.

TIM COGSHELL: This is a guy who had to play Henry IV for the role with the Shakespeare Company, and he took a lot of heat for that, you know, the first black actor to play that role. And he did it, and he silenced his detractors by being brilliant.

QURESHI: Roles on British television and in small films followed, but Oyelowo says he always had his eyes on a Hollywood career. So he moved his family to Los Angeles in 2007. And one of the first scripts he read was "Selma."

OYELOWO: This film started for me as a whisper. It started for me on the 24 of July, 2007, God telling me that I'm going to play this role in this film. Now, that may sound odd to people who aren't people of faith or just hearing that cold, but I knew that deeply in my spirit. And that's what kept me going.

QURESHI: The director of "Selma," Ava DuVernay, told NPR's Michele Norris that one of the reasons Oyelowo was the perfect actor for the role was precisely because he wasn't American.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVA DUVERNAY: The fact that he's British gave him a better in because he wasn't holding King up on a pedestal. He didn't have - grew up with the iconography of King. You know, in my home, my great-grandmother had a picture of King and Jesus on the wall at equal level, like it's just - there's just King and Jesus. That was it.

QURESHI: David Oyelowo didn't have that weight of history. His parents are Nigerian immigrants to Britain. And at one point the family moved back to Nigeria. Oyelowo says those years in Africa were formative.

OYELOWO: The truth of the matter is what living in the West unfortunately does for you as a black person is it engenders a minority mentality, whereas when I lived in Nigeria, the notion of the color of my skin, the notion of the opportunities afforded me as a result, never occurred to me. And it does affect how you bounce out of bed. It does affect your ambitions. It does affect your outlook on life.

QURESHI: Oyelowo says his role model is another actor, born in the Caribbean, who also became a star here.

OYELOWO: I call it the Sidney Poitier syndrome, in that I think the reason he achieved what he did the way he did at the time he did is because he grew up in a different society where he wasn't a minority. And so therefore, when he came to this country, he just couldn't understand the notion that everything on the plate wasn't his to eat. And he approached his career, he approached his ambitions, he approached his work in that way. And it was so undeniable that you just had to get out of his way. I think if you are brought up in a culture whereby that is not the case, you have a stance of combat. And that invariably means that you are spending more energy trying to bust through than be you.

QURESHI: Critics have raved about David Oyelowo's performance in "Selma," but the film has also been harshly criticized for taking liberties with its portrayal of the relationship between President Lyndon Johnson and King, shown here as confrontational and contentious.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) We need your involvement here, Mr. President. We deserve your help as citizens of this country, citizens under attack.

TOM WILKINSON: (As President Lyndon Johnson) Now you listen to me. You listen to me. You're an activist. I'm a politician. You got one big issue. I got 101.

QURESHI: I asked David Oyelowo if this portrait of King that will be seen by so many people has a responsibility to history.

OYELOWO: My responsibility was to go and find who that man was spiritually, emotional, intellectually and historically. And I can stand by every choice I personally made. I also can stand by the choices the film made. But at the end of the day, it is an artistic interpretation.

QURESHI: Some believe that artistic interpretation cost the film Oscar nominations. I spoke with David Oyelowo before those nominations were announced last week, but he was quite candid about what he sees as Hollywood's enduring problem with diversity - the fact that films about black life are under a different kind of pressure and scrutiny.

OYELOWO: Everything you do has such an intense gaze upon it because the opportunities are so sparse, so you always feel this need to be all things to all men for their salvation. And what we don't get that you get if you are a white artist, you know, director, producer or even the audience is that, you know, from a white point of view, you have so much context for what it is to be a human being. You have good movies, bad movies, sci-fi, romantic comedies. You have historical dramas. You have silly movies. You have very important films. You have all these different options that mean that you don't have to kind of politicize or think about is this painful for people to watch? Is this edifying for people to - you know, you can just be an artist and put your voice out there.

QURESHI: So one of his next projects will be more personal. It's the story of two Nigerian lovers, crisscrossing from Africa to London and America. It's a big-screen adaptation of the award-winning novel "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adich. His co-star is Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o. Oyelowo says in light of "Selma's" success, he's happy to finally have the American credentials to get a film like "Americanah" off the ground.

OYELOWO: The fact of the matter is if Lupita Nyong'o didn't exist in terms of her notoriety, her talent and who she is, if I wasn't afforded the opportunity to play Dr. King, that film would not get made if we hadn't been given the opportunities we've been given to give filmmakers, financers, producers, writers the confidence to make the movie. And so that is smack in the middle of what I hope to do going forward.

QURESHI: And since his is a name we'll be hearing more, and probably mispronouncing, I asked him for a final clarification.

OYELOWO: The way to do it is O on both sides of yellow. So it's David Oyelowo.

QURESHI: And from NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.