After awards ceremonies are done, many films tend to fade out of the American consciousness. Selma is different. The movie, a look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous march to Selma, was a critical darling, earning a remarkable 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and grossing over $50 million in U.S. theaters. We talked with David Oyelowo, the impeccable actor who took on the role of Dr. King, about what’s changed since Selma and how he hopes the film will continue to have an impact.
If you were unfamiliar with the Selma march, you’re not alone. “I think Selma shows a side of America that to some degree has been buried,” Oyelowo told SheKnows. “Very few people knew about the Selma campaign — certainly [not] younger people — and it’s one of the triumphs of the civil rights movement. It’s a time where black and white, men and women, people of all religions came together to fight against injustice and did so successfully.”
Part of the film’s success was its impeccable timing — America is in the midst of a reckoning with racial injustice, from police brutality in cities across the country to the lack of diversity in everyday media. “I think a lot of the conversations that the film brought to light [were] injustices of the past, and even some of the injustices that still remain and some of the inequities that still exist within the entertainment industry,” Oyelowo said. “I think the film had an impact beyond, I think, what we even anticipated.”
Still, there is work to be done. While Selma has had a tremendous influence, too few stories like it are being told. “A day needs to come whereby someone like Ava DuVernay is not an anomaly in terms of being a brilliant director, happens to be female, happens to be black, and that being the main talking point around her,” Oyelowo said. “We need diverse voices making film: young, old, black, white, male, female — and at the moment, it’s too white male-centric. And that means that media [and] film are getting a very distorted view of the world we live in, because it’s very — not even one-sided — it’s a minute percentage represented in terms of a world view.”
Oyelowo is committed to supporting these types of films, and feels it’s his responsibility to take on roles that break down boundaries. “I don’t have the luxury of willy-nilly doing whatever I feel I want to do in the heat of the moment. I know that what I do has ramifications… political, social, cultural, for my kids [and] for the world I live in… whilst there is an imbalance of representation for all peoples. As an actor and as a producer, I want to be part of the solution and definitely not part of the problem,” he said. “I think the way to do that is the work you do, what you say, what you advocate for and how you speak for the things you advocate for.”
In a generous gesture, Paramount is distributing a free copy of the Selma DVD to every high school in the United States. “We made a film about the power of solidarity, selflessness, courage, love and peaceful protest.” Oyelowo said. “To know that young people across the nation will see those qualities on display in Selma as they are growing into the leaders of tomorrow makes me both proud and hopeful.”
Oyelowo has several projects in the works: he’s starring alongside Lupita Nyong’o in an adaption of the book Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie; he’s working with Ava DuVernay again on a love story set during Hurricane Katrina; he’s recently produced a film, Captive, to be released later in the year; and he stars in the recently released Nightingale on HBO. Still, he says, “I’ve played my dream role now. Not many people can say that. Truly, playing Dr. King was a dream I held for over seven years. It was a very, very tough film to get off the ground. Several directors came and went several times.
“My ambition beyond now is to use the notoriety that the film has given me to continue to see great stories told [by] great characters on-screen, and maybe find my next dream role.”
Selma releases on DVD and Blu-ray May 5, 2015.