David Oyelowo: Growing up in Nigeria helped me play Dr. King


THIS year’s list of Oscar nominations has raised eyebrows in Hollywood and beyond. For the second time since the turn of the century, every nominee in the Academy’s four acting categories is white. Notably, the Nigeria-born-British actor David Oyelowo, acclaimed for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, the first major film about the civil rights leader, was left out of the Best Actor category as the nominations were announced.

     Also, Selma’s director, Ava DuVernay, had been tipped to be the first black woman ever nominated for Best Director, after she was shortlisted for last weekend’s Golden Globes. But she, too, was locked out of Oscar contention in another all-white category.

The 2011 Oscars also featured an exclusively white crop of 20 acting nominees. Up until then, the last time no actor of colour was nominated was in 1998.      

     However, Selma was nominated for Best Picture, where it will compete against Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which led the field with nine nominations apiece. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was also shortlisted for Best Picture, and remains the overwhelming favourite to win. Neither Oyelowo nor Grand Budapest Hotel star Ralph Fiennes was named in the Best Actor category, but two other British actors, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, will do battle for the prize with Golden Globe winner Michael Keaton, who is favoured for his performance as a washed-up blockbuster star trying to reclaim his credibility on Broadway in Birdman.

    While responding to questions from journalists at the Oscar nomination party on the disappointment from his fans over his non-inclusion on the list, Oyelowo said, “… yea, including my dad, who flew in from the United Kingdom yesterday. We didn’t get that joy, but more people know my name and his name than they did two months ago.”

     Though he failed to get on the Oscar 2015 nominees list, 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, he 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.

   Meanwhile, Selma was one of the first scripts Oyelowo 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.

     “I first met Lee Daniels, who directed The Butler, auditioning to play Dr. King in Selma. When we couldn’t get Selma off the ground due to budgetary constraints, Daniels and I went off and did The Butler instead. I had first read the script (for Selma) in 2007, and I had felt God tell me that I was going to play Dr. King in this film. So, when I was finally cast in 2010, I thought, ‘Wow, here we go — God was right; I’m going to play this role.’ And then I found myself playing opposite Dr. King in a completely different film. I can’t say that it prepared me; in all honesty, it sort of perplexed me at the time,” he said.

     According to Oyelowo, growing up partly in Nigeria, to a large extent, helped him interpret his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film. 

    “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 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,” he said.  

    For Oyelowo, to grow up black in western countries comes with its challenges.  

    “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, 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 five to 13), the notion of the colour 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,” he said.

   On the burden of expectations for ‘black films’, he said, “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.”

     The actor also aired his view 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 realised 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.”

      Oyelowo also spoke 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 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 how his Selma success helped his next project, Americanah, co-starring Lupita Nyong’o, Oyelowo clearly stated that, “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,” he said.

     A classically trained stage actor, David Oyelowo has quickly become one of Hollywood‘s most sought-after talents. He was born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents (his father, Stephen, worked for an airline company and his mother for the railway). Oyelowo graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and received the Scholarship for Excellence from Nicholas Hytner in 1998.

      Oyelowo first impressed audiences on the stage when he starred in The Suppliants at the Gate Theatre playing King Palasgus, for which he received the Ian Charleson award commendation. Following this, he played the title role of Henry VI, becoming the first black actor to play an English king for the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). The role won him The Ian Charleson Award and an Evening Standard award nomination.
     David received numerous accolades for the recent independent film, Middle of Nowhere, which screened to rave reviews at last year’s Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals. The emotionally inspiring film portrays the universal dilemma of how a person maintains oneself as they commit to loving and supporting someone through hardship. David has received nominations for Best Supporting Actor for the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards and the 44th Annual NAACP Image Awards on behalf of his work in the film.
    He also was seen recently in Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed drama Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Lincoln has already been the recipient of many awards, which include being named one of the top films of the year by the National Board of Review and AFI Awards. 

     Oyelowo has starred opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, a drama based on a book in Lee Child’s popular crime series. The film tells the story of a homicide investigator who digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who has shot five random victims. He also featured in Lee Daniels’ drama, The Butler, alongside Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and Nina, the story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone, which also stars Zoe Saldana. 

     Additional film credits include the George Lucas produced, Red Tails, which tells the story of the heroic Tuskegee Airmen who fought in WWII and won Best Picture at the NAACP Image Awards, Rise of the Planet of the Apes alongside James Franco and Frieda Pinto, the Academy Award nominated drama The Help, 96 Minutes which premiered at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, Default, a thriller directed by Simon Brand, Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland opposite Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy, and one of his most challenging screen roles to date, the acclaimed BBC2 film Shoot the Messenger.

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