Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. led a group of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest practices barring their right to vote. This spring, Ava DuVernay’s much-lauded film, Selma, depicted the events on the big screen. We talked to David Oyelowo, who plays King in Selma, about how his faith impacts his acting career and what it was like to play such an iconic figure.
How do you resist the urge to make MLK into a two-dimensional savior?
He was just a man. He was a fallible man. He was a man who was at times unsure. He had as much failure as he had success in his life. That’s certainly true for all of us. My hope, my prayer, is that people come away seeing themselves in Dr. King, because the truth of the matter is he was a human being and yet he did these amazing things anyway. Hopefully, we’ve got to think the same for ourselves.
What do you think it was about MLK that made him such a magnetic force?
Well, personally, as a Christian, I think that every now and again God ordains someone, anoints someone, raises someone up who is absolutely instrumental for change in their day and generation. You see it in the Bible with Joseph, you see it with David, with Moses. And of course, you see it with Jesus. I would say Dr. King is in that line of people who are raised up and sort of have an otherworldly ability to bring people together to turn people’s eyes on injustice and to actually be a true change agent.
Does being a Christian impact the way you choose roles?
One hundred percent. I pray about the roles. I seek God’s guidance for what I should and should not do, because I am a true believer in the fact that what we put out into the world affects the world. There are some filmmakers who like to think and are cheating themselves in saying that the artistic choices they make in terms of what they pump out into the world don’t affect culture. That’s just a barefaced lie. Films do affect culture. As a result, I hold myself responsible and accountable to be careful about what I put into the world.
What do you think Selma shows us about the things we are seeing right now in the states?
I think voting is something we very much take for granted in this country now, but when you see Selma and you see that people died for this right, people had their bodies broken for it, and it was denied people—if people see that fact, it may make them rethink not voting. The truth of the matter is that everyone being allowed to vote without being marginalized is now under threat again. [In] 2013, the Supreme Court basically took out elements of the Voting Rights Act, and now people are being marginalized again. Juxtaposing Selma and Ferguson shows that America has changed, but not as much as people actually think.