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Britain loves historical dramas - so why are we ignoring black history? We talk to David Oyelowo

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David Oyelowo, who you’re most likely to know from The Butler and Lincoln, is about to take on his biggest role yet – as Dr Martin Luther King Jr., father of the Civil Rights Movement, in a film that will mark 50 years since President Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to the USA in 1965.

Selma, which has been produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic struggle to secure voting rights for African-Americans half a century ago, culminating an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was the moment that changed the course of history for blacks in the southern USA, and one that remains hugely significant today.

The end of October sees Black History Month come to a close. It’s a time of year when the plight of marginalised groups should be at the forefront of our minds – although unfortunately, David admits, this is hardly the case, and especially not in the UK, where he believes “there is still a bit of a denial about the fact that black people, brown people, yellow people, whatever you want to call them, in the UK feel that they are British, and feel that they have a right to be called as much.”

The fact that minorities were essential in the building of the country, he says, seems to get lost somehow – and it’s a travesty “because we were part of building that nation; our blood and sweat is in every brick. Britain doesn’t have a ton of natural resources; where did this wealth come from? Where do people think, at such a time when so much of the globe was colonised by Britain – what do they think was happening, then? Britain was engaged with people all over the world, and that’s why people all over the world feel ownership towards Britain.”

In this country, he says, “we’re just not telling those stories for some reason - even though we love telling historical dramas.”

Clearly Oyeolow’s newest role is a huge one, and one that is loaded with significance not just for those with black heritage but also, as director Ava Du Vernay says, “the countless millions of people who continue to fight against discrimination in voting today.” David’s way to deal with this intense pressure was to try not to think about the significance of the character, or the responsibility that came with portraying him.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s impossible to play an icon; it’s impossible to play someone who is historically significant because all you’re projecting is the very top layer of what that person actually is as a human being... I think the only reason for it to be interesting to be Martin Luther King in a movie is to go behind the veil, to see something about him that is revelatory, and something about him that you couldn’t necessarily see in a documentary. That was my part – who was the man behind the frame? Who was the man behind the historical significance?”

He adds, “It’s a lot less daunting when you find someone that actually has flaws, has fears, who has guilt, who has significant relationships that he failed at, was successful at, that made him more of a human being.”

This, then, is a challenge – but not one that you get the impression David has at any second thought he might shy away from – although he freely admits that it is “unequivocally my great challenge to date” and something that he’s “relished for a long time”, ever since he first saw the script in 2007. His first reaction after reading it, he says, was “this is something I am going to do before I die.”

It must be a huge moment for an actor, to find a role that they connect with so immediately, and with such intensity – so was Martin Luther King a role that he’d always dreamt of taking on, or did the desire come after reading the script?

As it turns out, it wasn’t something that had crossed his mind before - it was after reading up on the man that the need to play him grew fierce.

David says: “The attributes that I have the most admiration for in people is sacrifice. If you’re able to sacrifice your own desires, your own body, your own money, your own ability for other people’s wellbeing... I just find that so incredible.”

It’s not the first time he’s tackled the subject of race in his films. Does he seek out these roles on purpose, or do they tend to come to him? And is important to him as a black actor to play these characters?

He’s drawn to them, he says, for the reasons he’s already mentioned – but there in an aspect of them coming to him too: “Those films tend to be surrounded by people who are fighting not just for justice for themselves but for justice for broader society, and that’s something that I’m full of admiration for.”

The USA electing its first black President, he says, has been a harbinger of change, and has caused a definite shift in the country’s mood.

“I think President Obama being the current President of America has definitely ushered in a spate of films that I don’t think otherwise would have got made,” he says. “I think that America is in a time whereby something has happened within the last decade... America is gaining a new context for who it is and what it is and what it represents, and I think it’s giving audiences a context of how we got here. Whether it’s Lincoln or The Help or The Butler or a film I did called Red Tails... films about African Americans fighting to get to where they are now. Those films have all happened within the last seven years.”

Coincidentally, it’s also seven years since David moved to LA. It’s a decision that has had a phenomenal affect on his career, although for reasons that might not be obvious.

Aside from the weather (”I could do without the rainy days”) and the fact that his family love it (“it’s a very outdoorsy lifestyle”) it’s the very different film industry in the US that has been David’s calling – and not for reasons that might be expected, or that portray the British film industry in a particularly positive light.

“It’s more fertile ground,” he says, “unfortunately for me as a black actor. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t get the chance to play the equivalent of Dr Martin Luther King in the UK, because of some reason, even though historically we have very significant black people who did incredible things in the UK, for whatever reason we’re not telling those stories. And so, as someone who has ambition, I have to go where it’s happening.”

It’s a strong claim to make, but one that has to be considered seriously when coming from a man with such clear interest and knowledge of the subject. So, why does he think the UK is failing to tell these stories?

It’s all in our sometimes collective, sometimes very separate, history, according to David, and even though he hasn’t experienced racism explicitly (“it’s still very much with us”) it’s something that is at the forefront of his mind: “In America, partly because slavery and the Civil Rights Movement were both undeniable historical events that happened both recently enough and were historically significant enough that you just simply cannot deny that those things happened, and that is it still an emerging part of American history.”

Clearly, Britain’s historical context is different: “Our history of black contribution to Britain has largely been swept under the carpet: it’s not taught in schools, people are very ignorant of it even though black people were in the UK way before Jane Austen, way before Dickens.

“And for whatever reason, even though we have this case for period dramas we never seem to want to tell those stories.”

He adds: “There is a responsibility I think for organisations like the BBC, like Channel 4, like ITV, all the major channels, and for filmmakers and production companies in the UK to tell these stories. It’s been in the news recently, why people of colour are so underrepresented on TV in the UK is because the public don’t have a context for how we became a multicultural society.”

Naturally, we can’t end our conversation without asking about one of David early roles, when he played Henry VI in 2001 – becoming the first black actor to portray a Shakespearean king at the RSC. With his focus on films in recent years, is he hankering to get back into the theatre?

This answer is an unequivocal yes. “I haven’t done a play for over seven years now,” he says, “but you know, I’ve been try to establish myself in film... theatre runs a little bit longer; it’s hard to jungle theatre and film.

“But yes, that was arguably the most significant moment in my career in term of the beginning of my career... a bit like playing Dr King, it was a rare opportunity that hasn’t been afforded to anyone, certainly at the RSC up to that point. It was one I relished; thankfully people liked it... it was definitely a milestone for me.”

You get the feeling, when talking of milestones, that Selma might be the next significant turning point in his career.

Selma is released in the UK on 6th February 2015.

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