by Chinwe Okafor
Following racial tensions that have been going on for months now and the rift caused by the grand jury decisions in Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, and the subsequent protests that have sprung up all over the world in reaction to them, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the civil rights biopic chronicling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work towards a Voting Rights Act, could not be more timely. The film, which echoes many of the current conversations surrounding racism, shedding light on work that must be done in the future, features British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, who takes on the gargantuan task of playing King himself.
Known for roles in Red Tails, Lincoln, and The Butler, Oyelowo sat with ESSENCE.com to talk stepping into King’s iconic shoes, the current racial climate in America.
On Ferguson and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice vis-a-vis Selma
Well, I think it does two things. It shows that it’s ridiculous that the very act that was gained from this campaign, i.e. the Voting Rights Act, is now being dismantled. If you compare Selma and Ferguson, you can see that the country hasn’t changed enough, and it’s ridiculous to dismantle that act, but I think it’s also encouraging to see young people coming together, and peaceful protests being what’s actually happening now.
Back then the issue was voting rights, now it’s police reform, and I truly believe that in the same way Dr. King was asking the President for federal intervention, to stop this game being rigged against Black people, we have to do the same thing in terms of asking federal intervention of the police. Who’s gonna police the police? You can’t have local prosecutors doing it, because it’s a conflict of interest.
On Martin Lurther King-
Huge admiration. I mean, these people were so young when they were doing this. Dr. King was 36 years old during the march. People don’t even realize that because his bearing was so mature, he just seemed older than that, but he was 36 when he was doing that. I’m 38, you know, I cannot imagine doing what he did.
You have to tilt your hat to it, one of the things you can’t afford to have is having people watching it going, “Well he doesn’t sound anything like King, doesn’t look anything like King, what am I watching?” You have to do as much of that work as you can, but I think ultimately what people connect to is the spirit. You know, what is the spirit of King? I knew that, yes, I had to gain weight, I had to get his rhythms, his physical mannerisms, as right as I could. But I always knew that the bigger task was the spirit. Who was this man emotionally?
On featuring in Americanah opposite Lupita Nyong’o-
As an actor, it’s not gonna change. You know, I’m not obsessed with being the lead. As long as it’s with great filmmakers, great people, and hopefully a good part, I’ll be there because I’m on a quest for getting better with every role I play.