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David Oyelewo Undoubted Shining Star

By Leslie Byron Pitt
Written: 04.03.15

 

David-Oyelowo_Selma

In the last five years, the likes of Idris Elba (Thor), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle), John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) have called attention to the wealth of black British actors making strong waves within the Hollywood system. 2014 helped continue the trend, with films such as Interstellar, A Most Violent Year and Selma highlighting the remarkable talents of David Oyelowo.

Oyelowo was born in Oxford, 1976 to Nigerian parents who both worked within the transport sector. At age 6, Oyelowo relocated to Nigeria and during his time there; Oyelowo discovered that his family was of royal lineage. He returned to England seven years later. Quoted in his BBC bio for Spy drama Spooks, it was during his Theatre Studies A-levels at City and Islington College, in which Oyelowo was inspired by a teacher to continue his dramatic pursuits.

David Oyelowo started his stage career in 1999 with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in roles for plays such as Oroonoko and Volpone. His performance as Henry VI in 2001 had him awarded with Ian Charleson Award for Best Newcomer in a Classic Play. This landmark of colour blind casting, caused controversy in some media circles. In the book The Henry VI plays (by Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutte), Oyelowo states on remembering a Daily Telegraph article which complained such casting “opens us to ridicule”. A Mail on Sunday Piece remarks: “I’m not sure you could have a black actor playing a monarch with such a familiar face, but with Henry VI it’s fine because your average theatre goer starts with a pretty blank slate.” A hilarious remark considering the west’s history of white washing minority characters (Laurence Olivier in Othello anyone?).

It is this role of Henry, however, that not only convinced his father that David had found correct career choice, such criticisms unsurprisingly foreshadow and consolidates Oyelowo’s feelings of strong roles for black British talent. The press interviews for Selma have highlighted Oyelowo’s forthright opinions on how race in the arts is viewed. That Oyelowo made his mark with this portrayal, only highlights his considerable talents further.

David Oyelowo became more of a household name due to his stint as doomed case officer; Danny in the BBC’s praised espionage series, Spooks (2002 – 2011). Playing alongside the likes of Matthew Oyelowo_SpooksMacfadyen and Keeley Hawes, Oyelowo spent two years on the highly popular show before bowing out to pursue other projects. Oyelowo found himself in leading roles such as Matt Wellings, in the critically acclaimed drama Five Days, in which he won the 2007 award for Winner of Best Actor in a Mini Series or Motion Picture for Television, Golden Satellite Awards. In 2008 he was cast alongside British actors Colin Salmon and Idris Elba in the Anthony Minghella directed pilot of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The Botswanan set show, while award winning and enjoyed, unfortunately, never obtained a second series.

Oyelowo also starred in the 2009 television mini-series Small Island. An adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, which focuses on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants during and after World War II. Oyelowo was nominated for Best Actor at the BAFTA television awards in 2010, for his portrayal of the unlucky but noble Gilbert Joseph.

Despite finding minor cinematic roles in the likes of Derailed (2005) and The Last King of Scotland (2006), it was 2011 which marked out new and exciting territory for the young actor. Oyelowo was cast as the selfish antagonist, Steven Jacobs in the surprise blockbuster hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Often recognised as more noble characters, the role of Jacobs allowed Oyelowo to not only star in one of the biggest hits of the summer, but also allowed him to expand his range in a much pulpier type of cinematic feature.

2011 also saw Oyelowo take a small role as Preacher Green, in the successful civil rights drama, The Help. In Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, Oywlowo was allowed to broaden his range further with the “physically demanding” role of 1st Lt. Joe “Lightning” Little. In an article for blackflix, Oyelowo was quick to not only comment on how proud he was being able to take a role that belongs in the history books due to the Airmen’s role in desegregation of the American Armed Forces. Oyelowo also noted on the shortage of opportunities of an all-black leading cast, being able to star in a movie, which didn’t feel like a niche feature, solely aimed at the African American audience. Hollywood mogul George Lucas financed and produced the film himself after gaining no support from the Hollywood studio system, but in the end the film didn’t set the international box office alight, however, Red Tails helped reinforce Oyelowo’s board range of talent to Hollywood.

It was in 2012 in which Oyelowo, first worked with Selma director Ava DuVernay, in the Independent drama, Middle of Nowhere. Gaining strong reviews and positive recognition at the Sundance Selma_Ava_OyelowoFestival, the film was a chance for DuVernay to work with an actor she had long been a fan of. Oyelowo’s role in Middle of Nowhere found itself sandwiched in-between releases of Lee Daniels’ Southern Gothic tale The Paperboy and Steven Spielberg’s historical biopic Lincoln. Oyelowo’s small yet poignant role in Lincoln, as Ira Clark perhaps has one of the most resonant moments of the film. In his most touching scene, the young Clark is reciting one of Lincoln’s most famous addresses, to help highlight his knowledge and admiration of the man. The scene itself is one of the film’s strongest moments.

His role as Louis Gaines in 2013’s The Butler gained Oyelowo even more recognition (NAAC image award for best supporting actor in a Motion picture), however, it was 2014 that has proved to be the one of the highest peaks of David Oyelowo’s career. The actor found him starring in a small but droll role as an ignorant school principle in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as well as a cagey and corrupt DA in the subtly engaging A Most Violent year. Of course the crowning achievement is Oyelowo’s complex and rousing portrayal of Dr Martin Luther King in Selma. Despite his Golden Globe nomination, many found his lack of nominations to be a snub.

However Oyelowo’s cool, calm demeanour when approaching his role of King in interviews, as well as his upfront and intelligent engagement about race and talent range of black British actors, show that his words alone may provide more inspiration for young black actors, than an award. For Oyelewo we believe…. the sky’s the limit.