Selma Star David Oyelowo Drops Lots Of Truth Bombs About Race In Hollywood
This year’s Oscar nominations are a crying shame. I won’t knock the Boyhoods or the Birdmans, but it’s been pretty clear from the get-go that Academy voters (those overwhelmingly old, white, and dudely folks who make these decisions) missed some things. From an actor’s pool that’s so white it’s actually (horrifically) impressive, to the shut-out of female stories from Best Picture and Selma‘s Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo from their respective (and very much earned) Best Director and Best Actor nods, this year’s nominations said a lot about Hollywood’s priorities and inclinations. It’s something Jessica Chastain made note of in her comments about awards season’s faults being a symptom of Hollywood’s larger issue, and it’s something Oyelowo has also been discussing a lot lately.
Last year’s victory for 12 Years A Slave has been heralded as a win for diversity, and in many ways it was. But it’s also important to note where 12 Years (which is exquisitely made, mind you) falls in the context — as another example in Hollywood’s history of rewarding black actors for playing slaves, maids, butlers, and characters whose lives are wrapped up in poverty and abuse. Think Precious. As Oyelowo said in an appearance this weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival when asked about his snub:
No, look, historically — this is truly my feeling; I felt this before the situation we’re talking about and I feel it now — generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative.
And the films like 12 Years and The Butler and, yes, even The Help do help get more films about the historical black experience get made. As Oyelowo continued:
I know for a fact that Selma got greenlit after both [12 Years and The Butler] almost $200 million each. I know that because Paramount said to us, ‘Well, that means that Selma will probably make around $98 million, so let’s make it! [The film has grossed nearly $44 million so far.] And God bless them for doing it — I love you Paramount, I love you, I love you. But that’s just the truth of the matter, is that up until now it’s been so hard to get these films made, but now they’re doing well internationally and critically and otherwise.
I’d say this is true, and in no way am I arguing for a world in which 12 Years isn’t made or isn’t recognized as the piece of crucial art that it is. But it also paints a bit of a picture when all of the (amazing) performances of black actors as slaves get nominated and the (also amazing) performance of a black actor as one of history’s greatest leaders does not. And it paints a picture that the films that are getting made, seen, and critically recognized about the “black experience” are still largely pulling from the same handful of tropes and eras. From The Hollywood Reporter:
As evidence, Oyelowo argued that “Denzel Washington should have won for playing Malcolm X” and that Sidney Poitier should have won his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night rather than Lilies of the Field. “So this bears out what I’m saying,” the actor continued, “which is we’ve just got to come to the point whereby there isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy — a notion of who black people are — that feeds into what we are celebrated as, not just in the Academy, but in life generally. We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things. But we have been leaders, we have been kings, we have been those who changed the world.” The audience responded with applause.
You can watch the full video of his comments here (he’s pretty charming about his snub):
Actually, Oyelowo’s been dropping truth-bombs all over the place recently. In an interview with The Guardian he echoed a sentiment Michael B. Jordan expressed previously when he was getting buzz for Fruitvale Station last year:
When Oyelowo graduated from the Lamda in 1998, he told his agent to find him scripts intended for white actors. “When I looked to heroes I wanted to emulate, I constantly found myself mentally jumping over the pond. I had read that Denzel Washington had told his agent early on: ‘Give me everything that Harrison Ford is turning down.’ That stuck with me.” His CV is laced with colorblind casting, from dashing Danny in Spooks to a detective in the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher and the dogged district attorney in the recent thriller A Most Violent Year. “I hunt those kinds of roles down.” But he knows there is still some distance to go. “The only way I get a leading role in a studio picture is if Ryan Gosling can’t play it, which is clearly the case with Selma. If this was a non-color-specific character, it wouldn’t be me. It just wouldn’t.”
Here’s a bit of what Jordan said during his awards season campaign previously:
[Jordan’s] strategy is just to continue to “make smart choices and do movies that appeal to everybody and playing characters that aren’t written for the black guy. You know, ‘Oh, he’s the black guy, you know, mom’s on drug’s, dad’s not around, dad comes back around, they have issues, he’s in a gang, he robs people.’ It’s the same fucking scenarios. Why can’t he be the guy that’s in med school? Or just dealing with regular people shit? Those roles need to become more of an abundance because then it starts to become less surprising when I’m playing a role people wouldn’t expect me to play.”
And when Oyelowo was recently cast as the lead in The Queen Of Katwe his son had a pretty telling reaction:
I’m the lead but my son actually asked me: “Are you going to be the main character’s friend?” I went, “Wow. That’s the world Hollywood shows him.” So I was very happy to tell him: “No. The other actor plays my friend. I’m the center of the story.” That felt powerful to me.
Hollywood’s got plenty of superbly capable performers out there already doing great work and waiting for their chance to play the same wide range of parts as people like Bradley Cooper are often afforded. My hope is that the Academy will eventually get its shizz together and actually be more consistent about recognizing these performers without it all having to be about black pain.
Personally I can’t wait to see Oyelowo team up with Lupita Nyong’o in the upcoming adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah; they’re both powerhouse performers and they’ve got a lot to bite into with this story of star-crossed Nigrian immigrants.
And if anyone with power in Hollywood is reading this: I’m still waiting for a big film/HBO miniseries/AMC prestige drama about the Harlem Renaissance.
You can read Oyelowo’s full Guardian profile here; I recommend it.
(Image via CarlaVanWagoner/Shutterstock.com)