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Selma Star: God Called Me to Play MLK Jr.

The Selma star talks about tapping into the civil rights icon’s humanity and faith

 

By Sophia Lee |

 

(WNS)–Few Hollywood stars would discuss in an interview how they pray before accepting a role for a film—much less declare God spoke directly to them. But British actor David Oyelowo is an outspoken Christian who talks about his spiritual experience voluntarily to both secular and faith-based publications. Oyelowo, who starred in films such as The Help, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and The Butler, is swiftly rising to fame, thanks in part to his stellar performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in director Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma. He’s already earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama, and he’s one of the top contenders for an Oscar nomination next year as well.

How does it feel to play the role of Martin Luther King Jr.? In many ways, it’s not until now, after I’ve played him, that I’m even able to entertain the idea that I’ve played someone as important as him. The way I had to think about him before I played him is first as a human being. I can’t dwell too long on the icon or the historical figure. I can’t play an icon, but I know what it is to be a human being, a father, and to be under pressure. And to be honest, I think that’s what an audience wants to see.

If you want to know more about the oratorical civil rights leader in a political sense, then watch a documentary, read a book. My job was to approach him as a man. So while I was playing him, it was more: Who is Dr. King the man? It isn’t until now, when people who know him more as a figure are watching the film, that I go, “Oh Gosh! Of course, I just played an incredible human being.”

 As a Christian, I was interested in Dr. King as a Christian and a pastor… My entry point to playing Dr. King is as a Christian. I’m a Christian myself. I can see that this is a man flowing with anointing, especially when he’s in the pulpit giving his speeches. He is absolutely taken up by a Spirit other than himself.

So one of the things I felt was very important for me, as an actor, was to approach this film from a spiritual point of view. Yes, you can look like him and sound like him, but this was a man whose engine was his faith. Non-violence was very much born out of Jesus’ teachings, and the fact that as a Christian, love for Him is about sacrifice. I feel like Dr. King truly exhibited that Christian principle in his work. And for me as a Christian approaching it, the biggest work I felt I had to do was spiritual, where I leave myself open to God leading me in playing the part, because really, if you just do it technically, you’re likely to give a fairly dry performance, especially considering who you’re playing.

One key moment in the movie was when Dr. King leads the march down Edmund Pettus Bridge, and he suddenly kneels down and prays. What do you think was going through his mind? I read about that event, because it actually happened exactly as depicted. He absolutely did pray. Even Andrew Young (fellow pastor and supporter of King in his movement) once said that Dr. King didn’t do anything unless he prayed about it first. He was very much led by God in virtually everything he did, especially the bigger decisions.

I think one of the things Dr. King needed a lot during his short time on this earth was spiritual discernment. He needed to have a good enough relationship with God whereby he can know how to lead this movement. And like you see in the film, it was a movement that had many divisions within the movement itself, between different groups and different members within the groups. And because he was the leader, he needed to operate outside of his own strength, or he would have failed, I think. To me that’s a key moment to show in the film because I felt very much led by God to play this part. So many things that happened in this film were born out of prayer. So it was fact and fiction sort of overlapping a little bit there.

Yes, I read that you pray about every role that you decide to play, and you said that God told you that you were going to play Dr. King. Were there any moments while you were working on this film where it became clear to you why God wanted you to play this role? I’m still trying to figure that out, to be honest. I know that I may not completely get the full picture of why, but what I do know is that the film was made in the spirit of love, and everything God does is generational. What He does extends beyond the individual. So I think with time, we’ll see exactly why God wanted this film made with me in it. I do feel like we’re already seeing why Selma was made now, because it suddenly feels like a very timely film, with what’s going on in this nation at the moment in terms of voting rights, police brutality, and so on. But I’m sure there are still many things I don’t know.

How do you want this film to speak to the audience, with all this racial tension and hatred that are still going on? By watching this film, by sitting with these characters for 2 hours, you can understand where the feelings of hatred may come from. I think that’s very important. When you feel like it’s not your story, that it’s got nothing to do with you, then it’s very easy to just go, “Oh, what are you complaining about?” But I think we made this film in a way that makes it feel very immediate, very relatable for the audience.

Now, that’s what was special about Dr. King and the non-violent movement. In this film, you have this scene where these guys want to get revenge. They want to get a gun and shoot the white oppressors, beat them, and have horses trample on them and everything else the black community endured from them. But like Andre Holland (who played Andrew Young) said in the film, “What’s that going to achieve? It’s just going to generate a cycle of violence.”

Dr. King’s philosophy as inspired by Gandhi was that you shame people into compassion by not striking back. With time, they are broken down to the point where they have to examine themselves, because they can’t just be venting on you. If they have a conscience, which most people do, they’ll eventually have to look at why they’re doing what they do, and hopefully they’ll see how little sense racism makes. And that’s hopefully what the film will remind people of.

Yes, I read that you pray about every role that you decide to play, and you said that God told you that you were going to play Dr. King. Were there any moments while you were working on this film where it became clear to you why God wanted you to play this role? I’m still trying to figure that out, to be honest. I know that I may not completely get the full picture of why, but what I do know is that the film was made in the spirit of love, and everything God does is generational. What He does extends beyond the individual. So I think with time, we’ll see exactly why God wanted this film made with me in it. I do feel like we’re already seeing why Selma was made now, because it suddenly feels like a very timely film, with what’s going on in this nation at the moment in terms of voting rights, police brutality, and so on. But I’m sure there are still many things I don’t know.

How do you want this film to speak to the audience, with all this racial tension and hatred that are still going on? By watching this film, by sitting with these characters for 2 hours, you can understand where the feelings of hatred may come from. I think that’s very important. When you feel like it’s not your story, that it’s got nothing to do with you, then it’s very easy to just go, “Oh, what are you complaining about?” But I think we made this film in a way that makes it feel very immediate, very relatable for the audience.

Now, that’s what was special about Dr. King and the non-violent movement. In this film, you have this scene where these guys want to get revenge. They want to get a gun and shoot the white oppressors, beat them, and have horses trample on them and everything else the black community endured from them. But like Andre Holland (who played Andrew Young) said in the film, “What’s that going to achieve? It’s just going to generate a cycle of violence.”

Dr. King’s philosophy as inspired by Gandhi was that you shame people into compassion by not striking back. With time, they are broken down to the point where they have to examine themselves, because they can’t just be venting on you. If they have a conscience, which most people do, they’ll eventually have to look at why they’re doing what they do, and hopefully they’ll see how little sense racism makes. And that’s hopefully what the film will remind people of.