Selma’s David Oyelowo Inspired by Dr. King’s Legacy


On the eve of a scheduled telephone interview with David Oyelowo (pronounced Oh-yellow-oh), star of “Selma” – the acclaimed Ava Duvernay directed feature film, I pondered what could be made of the few precious minutes we would have to talk about his quintessential portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the revered Civil Rights icon slain for confronting matters of injustice in 1968.

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As a product of the Civil Rights Movement – shaped by the challenges of segregation, denied access, racial slurs, taunts, intentional hatred, white privilege and self-proclaimed entitlement – I was made to believe that a change would surely come through faith, perseverance, accomplishment, and forgiveness.


Much like the era of the 1960s, the soldiers for justice and equality are multicultural, multigenerational and multi-equipped with passion, providence and purpose. Their outcries are echoes of the past and appeals for the future.


Art does imitate life but reality looms larger.


Oyelowo, Image Award winner (The Butler) and Golden Globe nominee, became Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” His transformation, a silhouette of one man deemed king among common men, agitator to malevolent men and spiritual barometer of a presidential man, made to concede his moral consciousness.


Sandra Varner: How did you absorb the weight, the honor of portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the responsibility of telling his story on film?


David Oyelowo: “My admiration of him before this project was immense, of course, but in preparation for this film role, having to seek for the man, husband, father, friend, what we know about him in terms of his oratory…a man who felt fear and did it [led the Civil Rights Movement] anyway.


“Now, on the other side of portraying him, my admiration has gone through the roof.


“Reflecting Dr. King at the timeline of this film, he was two years younger than I am currently; he was 36, I am 38. I can tell you, hand on heart, if I had had 10 years of my life held in the balance fighting for justice, being away from my family, having my every move scrutinized; I don’t know that I could have done it or would have done it. I can, however, relate to him as a husband and father with young children.


“We are now at a time in history when protests are rife again; racial injustice is making itself very clear, amplified again. Similar to the protests in Selma, Alabama, the injustices are racial but also inhuman toward all people. Dr. King advocated on behalf of all people.


“Today’s injustices are an American problem. The power of the image of all people protesting, not just hearing about it, but seeing it, changes the dialogue. I am encouraged by older people involved, younger people involved and all people coming together. The big question that I have for us as a country is, what are our demands?

“Are we articulating demands in a way that we can continue to rally behind so the effort does not dissipate? Dr. King asked for federal intervention and protection. Today, we need police reform.”


SV: There is equally a measure of courage needed and risk assumed when one attempts revisionist history.


Oyelowo: “Yes, I think there is also a divine element involved. I felt God directed me to do this project. I was contacted about it in 2007; then I went on a journey doing other films that taught me–as a foreigner–what it was like to be a Black person in this country for the last 150 years.


“Playing a soldier in “Lincoln” during the period of 1865, I played a Black fighter pilot in “Red Tails,” I played the son of a butler in “The Butler,” I played a preacher in “The Help.” All of the roles were demonstrative in helping me get to this point in my career and I can tell you that I didn’t go after all of these roles, they came to me.


“I have been given the opportunity to do what I love as an actor. If by chance we can see ourselves in the legacy of Dr. King, it will bear out that we all have greatness within us.”


We salute Ava Duvernay, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey and countless others who fought to bring “Selma” to the big screen, in theaters Jan. 9. The gift of this film is proof that the dream is still alive, the promise still intact, our prayers are being answered, and the movement continues to gain momentum.


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