Film

David Oyelowo: The UK film industry doesn't want black heroes

Selma star David Oyelowo on the humanity of Dr King, the Benedict Cumberbatch racism row – and how Oprah Winfrey has changed his life

David Oyelowo

British star David Oyelowo gives the performance of his career as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (pictured below). The film charts King and his supporters as they prepare to march from Selma to Montgomery to highlight the suppression of black voters, and the police and state-sponsored brutality they faced. It feels incredibly timely.

The Oxford-born actor is still best known over here for his long-running television role in Spooks. But since relocating to Los Angeles in 2007 he has appeared in Lincoln, The Butler, Interstellar and A Most Violent Year. Although he is dominant in the film and captures King’s renowned oratory skills and strength, Oyelowo was overlooked for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. There are bigger fights, he insists.

Selma is a film of rare, raw power… We talked about not wanting to make a bog-standard historical drama. We couldn’t have anticipated that [the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a police officer in] Ferguson would happen, that Eric Garner [killed by police in New York] would happen and that the racial unrest we are seeing across the world would gain momentum – but we now have a film that not only depicts what happened 50 years ago but is really speaking to the time we are in.

He didn’t walk the planet thinking of himself as a historical figure. He was a man

And it’s saying that we’ve come a long way, and yet we’ve not. Exactly. The Voting Rights Act is being dismantled as we speak. If there is one thing this film shows it is that, yes, things have changed and we have President Barack Obama but we should not take our eye off the ball in terms of making sure minorities are not kept away from the voting booth.

It’s astonishing how young Dr King was, yet he spoke truth to power with such authority. In some screenings people gasp when it says he was assassinated aged 39. He had such a weight to him. People are shocked because we think of things we are doing in our 30s – and we’re certainly not putting our lives on the line for years for people who are disenfranchised. But my job was to find the man behind the iconography, and hopefully that is compelling and revelatory. He didn’t walk the planet thinking of himself as a historical figure. He was a man.

Your Selma co-star Martin Sheen is always asked about politics because he played the president we all wanted in The West Wing. Does this feel like a job that will stay with you for life? It is too early to know but I feel very strongly about the issues in the film. If you are in the public eye you have a platform and I feel I have meaningful things to say about social injustice, human injustice, racial injustice. If my voice is sought, I won’t be shy about saying what I think. It has had a lasting effect on me.

You’re getting to know Oprah Winfrey well. This is the second time you’ve shared a lot of screen with her in recent years, after The Butler. Tell us something surprising about one of the most famous women in the world… Look, this is a woman who has done about three movies and has been Oscar-nominated twice – once as an actress and now as producer of Selma. If the rest of us had that batting average we would be in Meryl Streep territory! Oprah is my American mother, really. She is a huge voice in my life – she is the reason Selma got made. When we were struggling to get it off the ground, I went to her and said we needed help. She came on board as a producer. She is someone I have a very deep love for. Oprah has changed my life.

Selma

Oprah co-produced Selma – now you are producing projects [a biopic of Nina Simone, two films with Lupita Nyong’o, hostage drama Captive]. How vital is it to seize control of the means of production, to increase the range of stories being told? It is very important because films affect culture. Taking my daughter to see Annie the other day, with Quvenzhané Wallis in the title role, I could see the effect it had on her. The disproportionate amount of white characters in leading roles is because those are the people green-lighting movies. I am a beneficiary of Oprah Winfrey putting her power behind our film. Now I am gaining a level of notoriety, I have a say in what stories get told. This is why I am producing films, this is why I stuck with Selma for seven-and-a-half years to make sure it got made. I want to be a doer not just a talker.

But let’s talk about the Oscars… We made the best reviewed film of the year. That is official. We are making tens of millions of dollars at the box office. People are coming away emotionally, socially and spiritually moved. I have done a lot of films now, and this is unequivocally the best. We were overlooked at the Academy Awards, and the Baftas were also mist-making for me. I’m upset on behalf of [director] Ava DuVernay. And on behalf of Dr King. I want him amplified. I want him to transcend the phrase “I have a dream”. I want his legacy to not just be tied to his deification but to his humanity. And I feel our film really aids that.

We were overlooked at the Academy Awards, and the Baftas were also mist-making for me

Benedict Cumberbatch caused a storm by using the outdated term ‘coloured’ while, ironically, promoting on-screen diversity. You did Small Island together – what are your feelings about what he said? To accuse him of racism is absolutely ridiculous and nonsensical, and anyone who does should be ashamed of themselves. He was talking about the under-representation of people within the UK film industry and the fact that actors like me are getting better opportunities in the US. He has no dog in that fight. He is one of the premier white actors, not just in the UK but the world. And he has done something truly beautiful in saying this isn’t right.

Did you have to move to America to further your career? Not only do I think that but the opportunities I am being afforded bear that out. I’d never get to play a character akin to Dr King living and working here. If I looked like Benedict or Eddie Redmayne, I could do the films they have done that are being celebrated now. But myself, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor had to gain our success elsewhere because there is not a desire to tell stories with black protagonists in a heroic context within British film.

Will you use your new power to tell the stories we need to tell back in the UK? That is a huge ambition of mine. But I am not going to continue to bash my head against a brick wall. I tried very hard while I was here. And we have a system in place that makes it very difficult. The class system in the UK is very real. The old boys’ club is very real. America has its own challenges but the system is tied to money. If you make people money you will get opportunities, so I am in the process of trying to do just that. And I am really proud of this film…

Selma is in cinemas now

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