Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Selma’s David Oyelowo on the challenges of playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Illustration for article titled Selma’s David Oyelowo on the challenges of playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

David Oyelowo doesn’t simply play Dr. Martin Luther King in Ava DuVernay’s arresting and bold biopic Selma. He becomes King. Turning the myth into man a scene at a time, Oyelowo delivers one of the most evocative and powerful performances of the year, likely to garner some warranted Oscar attention come January.

But arbitrary accolades aside, 2014 has been quite the year for the classically trained, 38-year-old actor from England. Beyond his profoundly moving work as King, Oyelowo has appeared in diverse projects from indie thrillers (Default, Captive) to Christopher Nolan’s critically divisive space odyssey (Interstellar) to J.C. Chandor’s highly anticipated crime drama (A Most Violent Year). However, when Oyelowo candidly spoke to The A.V. Club his mind was wholly focused on the figure he’d been wanting to portray for nearly a decade, the racism still embedded into this country, and why it took as long as it did for Selma to be made.

The A.V. Club: Throughout Selma I kept thinking about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—a novel that, when published in 1958, stunned and enlightened readers with its authentic portrait of pre-colonial Nigeria. For many, this was the first honest examination of a world and people virtually unknown to Americans. And in many ways, Selma is similar in offering up the first unabridged, cinematic examination of Martin Luther King Jr.


David Oyelowo: It’s incredible that you draw those parallels. I was born in the U.K., but my parents are Nigerian and I lived there for seven years, from the age of six to 13. As a result, I have had a very keen interest in there being a more three-dimensional view of what Africa is and what it is to Africans. So often, what we see, in terms of culture and movies and books, is very one-dimensional. It’s always linked to grief and genocide and dictators and poverty. And Africa is so much more than that.

Same with Dr. King. It’s a speech. It’s a monument. It’s a holiday. But again, there’s so much more to him which, once you get that by way of context, accentuates the achievement of both the man and the movement. They were young people. They were in their 20s and 30s when they were fighting this fight.

AVC: It really makes you think about what the hell we’re doing in our 20s and 30s.

DO: [Laughs.] I know! I feel exactly the same way. What we see in Selma was going on when [King] was 36. When your average 36-year-old takes a long hard look at their life today in modern America…


AVC: Well, David, you’re 38 now.

DO: [Laughs.] I know, you’re basically saying, “C’mon, get on with it.” I’m with you.


AVC: Okay, so you haven’t had quite the impact MLK had at 36. But you do manage to turn this character from a sound bite into a human.

DO: You know, it was a gamble, if I’m honest. I have never done what I tried to do with Selma. I had done a film called Nightingale, where I stayed in character. It’s a man in a house unraveling after having just committed a heinous act. What I learned by doing that was that whenever the camera was rolling, I never questioned my actions. I never questioned what my character was doing. In fact, I felt less like a character and more like a person inhabiting the world in which I was placed. And I felt that that had to be what happened when playing Dr. King, especially if we are going to try to have it be an embodiment rather than some kind of projection of who he was. It had to be a being rather than a doing of him. His spiritual life was a huge part of what motivated him. His faith was the drop-off point of non-violence as a notion—the notion that love is how you combat hate. And because I am a man of faith myself, being a Christian, I felt that I had to call upon everything I already knew and open up myself to things I didn’t yet know in the hope that it would all come together.


AVC: To assume this character, you really did have to immerse yourself in the part. You’ve mentioned that your wife felt like she was having an affair with Dr. King.

DO: [Laughs.] My poor wife.

AVC: Are you okay, after that immersive experience?

DO: [Laughs.] I am, I am. I’m very good at letting things go. Having four kids helps with that. They get very impatient with the idea of daddy being this burden-ridden Dr. King-like figure bumbling around with a lot of extra belly fat. So I have a very rich and full life away from the movie set. I feel no need to hold on to a character once the job is done. And honestly, I have to say, this is one [character] I was very happy to let go of, because while it was the joy of my professional life to do it, it was also a heavy weight to carry for the duration of the shoot.


AVC: You’ve called the role a “dream realized.” Not to play on the pun too much, but what other dreams, film-wise, do you have?

DO: In all honesty, there’s nothing in my life right now akin to what playing Dr. King meant to me for seven years. I have to say I’m relieved about that. It takes up a lot of energy to try to move the needle on getting a film like this made. What I want to hopefully do now is continue to make films that wouldn’t otherwise get made. This is a film that was very difficult to get made, and now that it has been made people are really saying, “Wow it’s a no-brainer. Why did it take so long?”


AVC: Ava DuVernay, your director, explained that it took eight years to make, but it really took nearly half a century to make. We have six Rocky movies, eight Harry Potter flicks, and four Transformer films. How did we not have one fictional film about MLK?

DO: How about the fact that we already have a J. Edgar Hoover and Jimmy Hoffa movie?


AVC: I try to not remember Eastwood’s J. Edgar.

DO: [Laughs.] Right, well, I couldn’t possibly comment, but yeah, I agree with you. Not only this particular film, but any film in which Dr. King is the protagonist. I have a very clear theory as to why that’s the case. I think it’s not been up until recently that Hollywood has been able to get its head around the idea of a black historical figure, like Dr. King, being made into a film where there is no white savior character. I think that if Dr. King was a character who had a very prominent white person who aided him through his journey, that film would’ve been made a long time ago. But this is a man at the heart of his own story, with his black brothers and sisters as the engine. And I know for a fact that there’s been a huge resistance to telling this story as a result of that. The original Paul Webb script had Lyndon Johnson as the central figure. Dr. King was a peripheral character in the original script I read. I read other scripts that will remain nameless whereby Dr. King was the central figure and there was this shift towards making this white character the central figure to “get the film made.”


AVC: It’s okay, you can say “Stephen Frears” aloud.

DO: [Laughs.] I’m not going to say any by name. You can print whatever you’d like. Stephen Frears was the original director of Selma. But I’ve read other scripts that had nothing to do with Selma whereby they had Dr. King in them and you could feel the preaching. You could feel that this film wants to be a Dr. King movie, but you’re somehow going to have this… other character who no one cares about and is completely made up come in, but because you can get so-and-so star to do it—that’s the movie the world needs now.


You’ve had so many of those films be made, and they do well because the story is compelling. But I truly believe that in the same way that Spike Lee really struggled to get Malcolm X made—and had to go beg, borrow, and not quite steal to get it finished—we also struggled to get this off the ground. That should just not be the case with a figure who—I mean, he’s the only man who has a holiday named after him in the 20th century. Look, I’m a beneficiary of the fact that it took this long because here I am today having played the role, and God bless Paramount for stepping up and doing it and Plan B who had just done 12 Years A Slave. And people like Oprah and Brad Pitt stepped up, and Pathé as well. It took a really large group effort to get this done and I’m so glad that I get to be at the center of it.

AVC: This past weekend at the Castro screening you mentioned that crystallizing moment on the set of Selma, where you realized that you had given a similar speech on voting in the opening scene of Lincoln (set in 1865) that you were delivering in Selma (set in 1965). Nothing had really changed in the intervening 100 years.


DO: Dr. King himself put it so well in his speech at the march on Washington when he said that, “We have a bad check that has come back saying insufficient funds.” The Emancipation Proclamation made promises that still haven’t been granted, over 100 years later. That is ridiculous. One of the things that the civil rights movement was beset by throughout was “cool off.” Don’t try to do too much too soon. Bless him, LBJ brought in both the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Act, but without being cajoled, prodded, and forced to do it. The refrain was, “I just did the Civil Rights Act, please let things cool off.” Constantly this “cool off, cool off, cool off” thing. How dare that be a notion when there has been 102 years of cooling off, and waiting? The same thing goes for today when you see section five of the Voting Rights Act—the section was won through the Selma campaign, signed into existence by LBJ—being removed. Now we’re being told by John Roberts, on June 25th of last year, 2013, that the country has “changed” to the point where that is an obsolete part of the Voting Rights Act. How on earth does that make any sense? Especially, as seen in Selma, images and situations that are beyond evocative of what’s going on in Ferguson. I think if there’s one thing our film does, it shows that that notion is completely wrong. Yes, the country has changed and a lot of it for the better. But it hasn’t changed enough whereby you decided to dismantle the Voting Rights Act that was put in place to protect people from discrimination at the voting booth. One hundred and 50 years later we now find ourselves back-peddling again, which I think is ridiculous.

AVC: There’s this line in Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” where he points out the fact that those who wield power have rarely, in the history of human existence, given up that power.


DO: Yeah, but by the same token, I think there is power that as citizens we now have that we are not implementing. The truth of the matter is that Ferguson is two-thirds black, and if you look at the proportion of those people who actually voted, it’s shamefully low. So you create an environment where you can have a mostly white police force. You can have five of your six political figures be white, as opposed to black. Now, there’s nothing wrong with white people being in power, but when it’s two-thirds black in terms of the population in Ferguson, there’s something strange about that. It’s not representative of the place, and that is fundamentally wrong. That fight should be won at the ballot box, but you can’t win it if you stay at home while the very thing that was fought for and that people died for is not being utilized. The blame lies broadly with society. So yes, there are people in power who are doing things that are entirely questionable, but if we don’t fully use the power that was won for us, we run out of excuses pretty quickly.

AVC: Do you find that what’s currently happening in this country is similarly occurring in the U.K.?


DO: No, it’s just that the U.K. has a very different relationship to race. In many ways, there is more transparency here, because you have the very overt and undeniable historical facts of slavery and the civil rights movement. You have these beacons that are undeniable. In the U.K., it’s a bit more insidious. It’s a little bit trickier to really pin down—what it is to be black. It is different. It has different nuances. Does racism exist? Absolutely.

But I’ve lived here [in the U.S.] for seven years now and in that time, having read the script of Selma in 2007, I just knew that I was going to play this role at some point in my future. So I became a student of what it is to have been black in this country over the last 150 years. And then these films came along that further accentuated my education. Lincoln, the Civil War. Red Tails, the second world war, what it was to be a black fighter pilot at that time. The Help, to be a preacher in the South. The Butler, what it was to be black through the 20th century into the 21st century. Every time I get one of these films, of course, it’s my job to dig deep into the history of the character I’m playing. And it all went into the blender for being able to play Dr. King when I did and how I did.


AVC: It’s like you took all these classes and then the role of MLK is your thesis project, informed by everything you learned from past endeavors.

DO: Yeah, that’s why I truly feel like there was something divine through it all. Because literally, how on earth are you going to orchestrate being in all those movies before this film even came to fruition?


AVC: I know of only one person who could orchestrate all of that.

DO: Oh, who is that? You’re either going to say God or Oprah.

AVC: Is there a difference?

DO: [Laughs.] I will tell her that.


Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`