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David Oyelowo: 'Black characters are no longer criminals'

MAN OF THE MOMENT: David Oyelowo

HE’S ONE of the biggest icons in black history, yet Dr Martin Luther King's story — or even part of it — has never been told in a feature film.

And this is something actor David Oyelowo isn't surprised about at all.

In fact, the British-Nigerian actor, who plays Dr King in the critically-acclaimed biopic, Selma, reveals that it took over seven years to get the project off the ground because no director thought a film about Dr King would “make any money”.

Oyelowo, 38, claims that it wasn't until the success of other black films such as Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels' The Butler that Hollywood "ran out of excuses" not to make the film.

"Not since [the 1992 film] Malcolm X have you seen a film like Selma", the actor told The Voice.

"What has happened in the past, is white protagonists have been crowbarred into the narrative to make them the hero of the movie, and you can't make a Martin Luther King film with some white, hot, young actor."

He adds: “There is a tradition in Hollywood for not celebrating black characters and black films when the protagonists are black leaders driving forward their own narrative.

“It's seems to be far more easier for us to be the criminals, the abusers and being abused.”

The father-of-four first read the script in 2007 and claims that directors “came and went because there was always a problem with the budget”.

“They'd say, 'oh we can't make it for that much money because it's not going to make much money'.

"It's not until 12 Years a Slave came along and The Butler came along and they were critically received and did great in the box office, that I truly think Hollywood ran out of excuses not to make a Martin Luther King film."

Selma, which was released yesterday (Feb 6), follows the story of Dr King's historic struggle to secure voting rights for black Americans.

In the spring of 1965, demonstrators - led by Dr King - embarked on a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the exclusion of black Americans from the electoral process.

The dangerous and terrifying march and the two others that followed, galvanised American public opinion, and persuaded President Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act in 1965 - the iconic legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

ROLE OF A LIFETIME: David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King

Selma, which also stars British actors Carmen Ejogo and Tom Wilkinson and American media mogul Oprah Winfrey, has been released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the march.

The film was nominated for four Golden Globes and is currently in the running for an Oscar in the best picture category.
Despite missing out on a nod for his performance, the actor doesn't seem too disappointed, claiming awards are not necessary something he “strives” for.

“The real prize is creating something that resonates with audiences for ages to come. But my goodness, it would be nice.”

Oyelowo, who put on two stone for the role, admits that he did not want to use any prosthetics while shooting.

“If you're going to play someone of Dr King's stature, you'll already fighting an uphill battle for people to just accept you in that role.

“So if you then add the false nose, the false this, the false belly, both in the playing of it and the watching of it, the chances are, the audience are going to have moments when they come out of the story, because they'll be like 'hey what's up with his chin?'”

It's not just Dr King's look Oyelowo needed to perfect. Taking on such a role, can be quite daunting in itself, but the Oxford-born actor had the added pressure of successfully pulling off King's distinctive southern Georgia accent.

MARCHING: Selma also stars British actress Carmen Ejogo (right)

“If you're going to play Dr Martin Luther King, and you don't have the accent on lock, you're going to get crucified,” the British actor laughs.

“I spent a lot of time to make sure that I had it down. I work with an excellent dialect coach over here for all my roles.”

Last month in the States, President Obama hosted a screening of the film at the White House - a day which Oyelowo will “never forget”.

He says: “There are so many different decades since Dr King was assassinated in 1968 that this film could have been made, and for it to come along when there's a black President - a person who is the realisation of some of what Dr King's dream was - is amazing.

“I just feel so blessed. That's the kind of thing you take to your grave.”

Selma is the second film the actor has worked with Oprah Winfrey on — the first being in The Butler where she played his on-screen mother.

“She's an amazing human being. I know people already know that, but what's so incredible about her is that the same warmth and level of engagement you see with her on screen, is the same off.

Oyelowo adds: “She's a huge influence in my life, and huge voice in my life. I love her deeply. She's a mother figure to me.”

The actor, who lives in LA with his wife and four young children, continues: “She's been a huge champion of mine and she is the reason the film got made.

“This is a film that wouldn't get made without advocates of that nature.”

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