19 Jan 2015

David Oyelowo: Hollywood’s problem with powerful black characters

Even as America remembers Martin Luther King with a national holiday today, a cinematic portrayal of the civil rights hero has become a focus for this year’s Oscars scandal. Revealing nominees for its major awards last week, the Academy suffered a massive diversity failure.

No women are nominated at all in the directing or writing categories, and all 20 contenders for the main acting gongs are white.  Welcome to post-racial America.

Selma portrays the moment when Martin Luther King led the march from the town of Selma in a bid to force President Lyndon Johnson to guarantee black voting rights.  It opens in the UK next month.

It is directed by a woman, Ava Du Vernay, and its cast is led by the British actor, David Oyelowo, who plays MLK.  Critics had predicted gongs for both.

If you Google “Oyelowo, Du Vernay, Selma and snubbed”, you’ll get a sense of the fallout over the film’s failure to draw multiple nominations, aside from the “best film” category, and “best original song”.  Or you could take a look around the Twitter hashtag #oscarsowhite.

Industry figures from Spike Lee (who wasn’t nominated for Malcolm X) to Star Wars director George Lucas have bemoaned the Academy’s cold shoulder.  Saturday Night Live fired salvos at Hollywood on the film’s behalf at the weekend.

So what happened? The theories range from damage done by judgements of historical inaccuracies, in the portrayal of President Johnson; to a failure by the studio Paramount to get copies of the film to Academy members in time.

When I asked David Oyelowo why he thought the Academy had failed to embrace the film, he said: “Hollywood still has a problem with black powerful characters in the centre of their own narrative, driving their own destiny forward.  If you’re playing a subservient character, it lies comfortably within the self-fulfilling prophecy of what it is to be black in America… The difference with Malcolm X or with Selma is that you have characters who are strong, who are leaders, who have a point of view and they are driving that forward for themselves.”

One suspects this would all feel less important, had the themes of the film not chimed so loudly with the reality that still faces black America.  The voting rights Martin Luther King campaigned for in Selma are being salted away (voters in 14 states at last year’s mid term elections faced new voting restrictions).

In Alabama, re-segregation continues apace, in schools where black and white students once sat side by side. And last year, unrest over the failure to indict white police for killing black men in Ferguson and New York rippled across the country.

As Oyelowo says, they may have been making a historical movie, but: “We were flabbergasted at the fact that we were seeing images on TV that were reflective of what we had literally just shot.  I think the parallels between Ferguson and Selma are undeniable – none of this protest is going to mean anything unless what one sees in Selma is the high price that was paid for the vote.

“There are problems in the UK, there are problems here, racially speaking. The UK is still rooted in a class system that is silent, invisible and yet impenetrable.  The world in which we could have a black prime minister feels very far away.  In America, the racial problems are more on the surface.  They’re more transparent.”

America’s black president met Britain’s white prime minister on Friday morning.  On Friday night, the White House hosted the cast of Selma, at a special screening, to mark the Martin Luther King holiday.

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4 reader comments

  1. michael palmer says:

    It is abhorrent in the 21st C that equality is still a topic fiercely debated, there is a clear absence of equality in our streets, our schools, our politics and policies; the blatant disregard for those noble actions of our modern day heroes like Dr M L King, the integrity, the passion in belief appears to be glossed over; forgotten and dismissed as anything but a ‘white-wash’ is an Oscar fueled political agenda at a wholesale price. It is simply a joke that is simply is not funny anymore. Selma is a poignant representation that echoes the past,but also should serve as a warning that people must share in a life fantastic, free to be who that have the potential to be, free, united, but never ever silent.

  2. Wladyslaw Mejka (@WladyslawMejka) says:

    All the evidence available suggests that the UK struggles with making race equality happen and as another decade passes the potential turning points provided by such as the MacPherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence [https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277111/4262.pdf] lose their place in the minds and memories of those who can make change happen.
    Good to see that Channel 4’s new Diversity Strategy recognises the need for radical action on equality – it can only get better by 2020.

  3. Paul McGrath says:

    Idris Elba made this point last year about the lack of black role models on British television. I watch a lot of US drama and only in the last few years have black actors had lead roles. More often than not they are cast as the ‘partner’ or ‘chief’ in the cop drama. On UK tv black characters are still the “Love Thy Neighbour” neighbours! This is the 21st century lets move on.

    “Luther” has been hugely successful here and I hope that will encourage British tv to cast black actors as lead characters instead of them going to the US to get top roles in tv and film like the brilliant David Oyelowo. I wish him all the success he rightly deserves.

  4. Anne Hall says:

    David Oyelowo cited how his brother who lives in the UK had been been subjected to racist abuse in the street after the Brexit result. The Brexit fallout was more poisonous and complex than that. I know East European people talking their native language in the street and on buses who have been shouted at by people of African Caribbean descent to get back to their own country ; one is a Polish woman married to a black man originally from Trinidad – she has taken British nationality as has he, and both contribute in every way to our society. I also know people of South Asian descent who voted out in the referendum and can’t wait to see the back of people from the EU. Group has been set against group in a strategy of scapegoating, a deliberate process of appealing l to our worst instincts which obfuscates a clear analysis of the origin of our social and economic problems. It was a strategy financed by millionaires who want a Britain with working conditions inimical to ordinary people – there is truth in the American expression ‘follow the money’. Theresa May is trying to put to some between this driving impetus of the leave campaign in her broad policy speeches , but I have little faith in the outcomes of her tenure in office and I feel trepidation for our country.

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