The name David Oyelowo is now well-known and forever linked with the extraordinary movie by Ava DuVernay, Selma. The actor is riding the crest of a wave of critical success, thanks to his outstanding performance as Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and is looking ahead to the many opportunities that all that hard work will hopefully now bring. But Oyelowo was not always in such a fortunate professional position, and the star has been using his recent Selma press engagements to highlight the fact that, were it not for his decision to relocate to America, he would not be enjoying the career he has today.
Speaking to the Radio Times, ahead of the February 6th U.K release of Selma, Oyelowo explained the events that caused him to choose Los Angeles over Britain.
“We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years.”
“I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was that if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand.”
“And I thought, ‘O.K – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in, and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So, I’ve got to get out.”
“There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in L.A. We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call The Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the 50th iteration of Pride And Prejudice. We’re not in those. And it’s so frustrating because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.”
David Oyelowo rose to prominence in the U.K with a 26 episode run in the BBC series Spooks from 2002 to 2004. After that, he bounced from small part to small project for a number of years before finally hitting it big with the role of Preacher Green in the Academy Award winning film The Help in 2011.
Since then, his fledgling American film career has seen him feature in titles such as Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, The Paperboy, Lincoln, Jack Reacher, The Butler, Interstellar and A Most Violent Year – in addition to his central role in Selma. Oyelowo is certain that such high profile opportunities would never have been available to him within the British film industry, because the lack of diversity begins in the boardrooms of the industry – as he explained to The Independent.
“I think that the way to stop the talent drain is to really examine the people who are making decisions both at TV channels and film production companies.”
“We need a level of diversity in terms of the decision makers because ultimately, the reality is we all want to see ourselves on film and what we see on screen is a reflection of people who are making decisions – they are basically green-lighting projects that speak to them and the lives they lead, and that’s not reflective of society, generally.”
But, the U.S film industry has not come away from David Oyelowo’s press tour unscathed. The Times Of India reports that, while speaking at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Oyelowo addressed the issue of the way black people are represented in American film.
“…We, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the centre of our own narrative.”
“So, this bears out what I’m saying, which is that we’ve just got to come to the point whereby there isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy [of] a notion of who black people are, that feeds into what we are celebrated as, not just in the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences], but in life, generally.”
“We have been slaves, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things. But we have been leaders, we have been kings, we have been those who changed the world.”
“…Up until 12 Years A Slave and The Butler did so well, both critically and at the box office, films like this were told through the eyes of white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt.”
“So you have a very nice white person who holds black people’s hands through their own narrative. We don’t want to see that pain again, so you don’t even go into what that pain is in an authentic way. Both of those things are patronising to the audience. You can’t have people curating culture in this way when we need to see things in order to reform from them.”
David Oyelowo can be seen in the role of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, which opens in the U.K on February 6th 2015.