The Once and Future King

david oyelowo

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

David Oyelowo opens up about Hollywood, race and immigration

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

David Oyelowo is a sought-after actor and an impassioned advocate for greater diversity in Hollywood, so it was a forehead-smacking moment when, after telling his young son he’d accepted a role in a Disney film, the boy asked, “Daddy, will you be playing the main character’s best friend?”

“He’d seen so many films in which that was the extent of the kind of character that an actor of color would typically play,” Oyelowo said, shaking his head. 

Oyelowo came to Dickinson March 6 to deliver the Student Senate-run 2017 Poitras-Gleim Lecture, which was endowed by a gift from Ted and Kay Gleim Poitras ’53 to provide a forum to explore and promote cross-disciplinary thought and communication. During his stay, the actor/director/producer and recently naturalized American citizen visited classrooms, met with professors and student groups and spoke publicly about parenting in the age of social media, women directors, Donald Trump, immigration reforms and how multidimensional roles for actors of color can inspire sweeping cultural change.

Global perspective

David Oyelowo speaks to an audience of about 800 in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

David Oyelowo speaks to an audience of about 800 in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo spent his first six years in the U.K., and the next seven in Lagos, Nigeria; he and his family moved back to England when he was 13. He attained U.S. citizenship last year and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children, ages 15, 12, 9 and 5. 

A graduate of the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, Oyelowo is best known for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King in the 2014 Oscar-nominated movie Selma—a performance that garnered him a Golden Globe nomination and one of several NAACP Image Awards—and for his Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning, starring role in the HBO Drama Nightingale. Other notable pictures include The Help and Lincoln, both nominated for best picture awards, as well as A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Butler and his current movie, A United Kingdom. 

Onstage, he was the first actor of color to portray an English king in a Royal Shakespeare Company production; he also earned international notice for his 2016 New York Theatre Workshop performance as Othello.

Socially minded casting

David Oyelowo speaks with students in Karen Kirkham's acting class.

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Speaking with students in an acting class, Oyelowo said that while his classical training informs his technique, his international background—particularly, his formative years in Nigeria, where he suddenly was part of a racial majority—influences his worldview and the kingly parts he seeks out. These include his role as MLK in Selma, credited as the impetus for last year’s #OscarsSoWhite social movement, and as Botswana President Seretse Khama in A United Kingdom. Both roles, he noted, build empathy by placing leaders of color at the center of the narratives, telling stories too often unheard.

"My hope is to make movies that would ultimately break down prejudice about what and who someone who looks like me is," he said. "The minute you see a different context of what it is to be a black man on planet Earth, that’s when we start getting closer.”

And when the movies depict historic events from a minority perspective, they also can fill in gaps in the public's understanding of important people and movements. Oyelowo learned that lesson in 2014 while attending a premiere of Selma, in the small Alabama town, blocks from the bridge where the film's pivotal events unfolded 50 years earlier. After the screening, a young white woman approached Oyelowo to thank him for the film, which had taught her a great deal about her own history, both as an American and as a lifelong resident of a town where Civil Rights history was made.

A call for change

David Oyelowo

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

As he discussed his experiences as a producer, director and actor of color, Oyelowo likewise championed women directors, such as Ava DuVernay (Selma), who also are underrepresented among Hollywood decision-makers. Asked to comment on current affairs, he evoked a widely observed "erosion of civility" in America during the recent presidential campaign. He also expressed concerns over changing views on immigration in America and worried aloud that his newly adopted home country is “ostracizing itself from the world in a way that is going to be really detrimental, considering the beautiful nature of what America really is.”

Oyelowo closed by restating his commitment to fostering empathy through art, and he encouraged young people to consider ways they too can help build a more just and inclusive society, one interaction at a time.

"I didn’t go into acting to break down prejudice or champion women directors. But as I have gone through my career, I came to realize that ... I could do what I love and also help start conversations, help create a better world for my children. And whether you’re involved in the arts or media or not, the contribution that you can make to this country is absolutely invaluable," he said, "But it will only have far-reaching effect if you are intentional about how you want to affect the world … Unless you are intentional about the world you want to see, it simply will not change.”

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Published March 7, 2017