Playing MLK: Actor David Oyelowo on Selma

David oyelowo
David Oyelowo

British actor David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King in director Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, the story of Dr. King’s march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, on behalf of the right to vote. At the time, black citizens were denied the right to vote in the South through impossible “literacy tests” and poll taxes.
Oyelowo spoke to me about the importance of showing the audience the man Dr. King was in private as well as his public appearances.
For me as an actor, you can’t take anything, any of those scenes, any of who he was in isolation. When we think of Dr. King, those are the things that flash through our heads — we think of speeches, we think of him talking to presidents, we think of him talking to the press. And so even though those scenes were important to me, they were always being thought of by me through the lens of how are they going to be juxtaposed? So in a scene with Lyndon Johnson [played by Tom Wilkinson], I have so much I want to say. I want to think of how that juxtaposes with the scene with my wife where I don’t have the words, where I don’t have a strategy, where to be perfectly honest, I have less mental capacity to engage with what’s going on in the home and so therefore I’ve run out of resources to deal with what’s going on at home. So in many ways the robustness, the strategy, the tactician that you see in front of LBJ shows one side of him. And the ferocity, the degree of cajoling, the degree of at times dampening himself down. You see that more clearly because of what we learn in the more private moments.
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