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.”
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