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David Oyelowo: 'God called me to play MLK'

Selma star David Oyelowo talks to GEORGE LUKE about playing Dr King, and following Jesus in Hollywood ...

Selma star David Oyelowo talks to GEORGE LUKE about playing Dr King, and following Jesus in Hollywood ...

David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King in the film Selma has earned him a Golden Globe nomination and praise from film critics all over the world. It’s his most intense performance to date – and the process of getting the film made has been a struggle with echoes of the fight for voting rights the film documents.

“I read the script two months after moving to LA,” David recalls. “That was in July 2007. On 24 July 2007, God told me I was going to play Dr King in this film. Unfortunately for me, the director attached to the film at that time didn’t agree with God. (he laughs) But that director came and went, and it wasn’t until 2010 that Lee Daniels came on board and cast me in the film.

“But we still couldn’t get it made. More money was needed to make the film than there was available to make it – and that’s because of this false notion that ‘black doesn’t travel’; that if you have a black protagonist in a movie, only African-Americans will want to see it, and no-one in Europe will go and see it. There’s this self-fulfilling prophecy that such a film shouldn’t be made because it’s not going to make any money. We suffered under the weight of that time and again.”

Lee Daniels eventually moved on to direct The Butler, in which David played civil rights activist Louis Gaines, and Oprah Winfrey played his mother.

“I actually have a scene with Dr King in The Butler,” says David. “I was like ‘Lord, is this what you meant – that I was going to be in a SCENE with Martin Luther King? Really?!’ By then, I’d done a film called Middle of Nowhere with Ava DuVernay; a small film, but a transcendent director. I became an advocate for Ava to direct Selma.”

Whilst working on The Butler, David told his screen mum about his dream to play Dr King.

“Oprah said, ‘I believe in you; I believe in this and I believe you’re called to do it. Let me know how I can help.’ Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I called her up and said, ‘We need you’. She came on board as the producer – and we were off!”

Playing Dr King, David says, gave him a stark reminder of the difference between ‘talking’ the word and doing it.

“As Christians, it’s very easy to hear the word of God and talk about it,” he says. “To walk it out; to walk out sacrificial love as he did, and as demonstrated so beautifully by Jesus Christ himself ... that’s something else. Dr King died for this cause. He knew for 13 years of this movement that that was a possibility – and yet he did it anyway.

“I felt called to play him in this film, and I spent seven years doing everything I could to prepare and to enable that to happen. I know that for him, his calling was very real; he spent every day trying to cultivate a situation whereby people who were being disenfranchised wouldn’t be. I could relate to that. What I honestly can’t say I would do is be able to sustain it for as long as he did, and at the cost that it was to him.”

David’s career has really flourished since his move to Hollywood. But how has he kept his faith – and his sanity – living and working in an environment so many Christians see as a no-go area?

“I’ve kept my faith by continuing to have God be my source,” David says. “Hollywood definitely isn’t the first place you think of when you talk about the light! But film – storytelling – is an enormous culture-shaper. Stories, as exhibited by Jesus and his use of parables, are a phenomenal means by which we engage with our humanity, with what is wrong and right, and with who God is.

“I believe that if we Christians just walk away from Hollywood, we miss out on being part of an enormous tool for shaping culture. And I’m not talking about just making Christian movies; I’m talking about films that edify the human spirit.

“With Hollywood, you have a group of people who are very spiritually open. The unfortunate thing is, they’re spiritually open to everything! So to be in there and be able to shine the light of God within it, I think is very, very powerful.”

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