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David Oyelowo has a favorite phrase from St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach the gospel, and every now and again use words.” You could see why. One of the most remarkably talented film and stage actors working today, he employs words to stunning effect, but it’s between syllables that one sees his real power. There’s something in his being that telegraphs a certain dignity, a deep human awareness and an underlying joy that he seems incapable of turning off, on screen or in person. “He’s kind of an amazing balance of import and also a kind of levity and light,” said J. J. Abrams, producer of Oyelowo’s upcoming film The God Particle.
He’s best known for his acclaimed portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, in which his embodiment of a man raised to sainthood status as one also troubled by fear and doubt was praised most widely for its authenticity. That lack of hagiography may be partly due to an outsider’s perspective. Race played a significant, but different role in his life. He was born in London to Nigerian parents who moved the family to Lagos when he was six, and back when he was 14. Comparatively privileged in Nigeria where classmates called him coconut (white inside) and in more humble circumstances in the UK, he never completely fit. He took nothing for granted other than his own self-worth, and the importance of bettering himself.
Despite being a hard worker and ambitious, he admits to enrolling in a youth theater program only because a girl he liked invited him. Oyelowo didn’t share his decision to pursue acting with his father (who was thinking along more lawyerly lines) until he’d secured a scholarship to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He was offered a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in a major landmark for color-blind casting, became the first black actor to play an English king in a major production of Shakespeare. He was soon getting parts in a number of British films and TV series, most famously, officer Danny Hunter in the British TV drama series Spooks (MI-5 to North American audiences).
Problem was, given British producers’ fondness for period pieces, he found the choice of interesting roles for black actors if not insulting, at least limiting. When he looked at the careers of his acting heroes – Will Smith, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington – he realized they were made in Hollywood. So that’s where he went. Catching the eye of major directors like Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels opened opportunities for more nuanced characters, and recognition. His work in The Butler, Red Tails, Intersteller, and Disney’s Queen of Katwe garnered a wider audience, but his 83-minute masterwork may just be HBO’s Nightingale. Writing about the 2014 film, which essentially starred Oyelowo and a room, The New York Times called his performance nothing less than amazing. “Mr. Oyelowo gives a riveting, disorienting and suspenseful tour of an unraveling mind. The music and cinematography are artful, but the props are mundane: a coffee maker, a mirror, a laptop. Everything is in Mr. Oyelowo’s voice, face and body.”
He found time for an all-too-brief return to the stage last year in an “electrifying” Othello opposite Daniel Craig, something we’ll be kicking ourselves for a long time for missing. “Mr. Oyelowo is Olympian in his anguish,” read the review in the Times’ Critics’ Picks. “His Othello is the real thing — a bona fide tragic hero, whose capacity for emotion is way beyond our everyday depths.”
Early on in his career, Oyelowo told his agent to put him up only for non-race-specific parts, an edict he worried was naïve when offers were initially slow in coming. But holding steadfast has given him a chance to prove his range. And while he remains adamant about not playing one type of character, he is interested in a recurring character trait. He believes virtue is “something to be celebrated — entertaining, compelling, dramatic.” It’s not something you hear from many actors, and maybe that’s for the best. In the hands of an artist of lesser skill and subtlety, the intent might be noble, but the result one-note or worse, pandering and corny. In Oyelowo’s work, we’re able to look past even the most cynical parts of ourselves, and see something to hope for. In him, we have actor we not only can’t look away from, but simply don’t want to.