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Black performers have been singled out for awards “more for when we are subservient,” David Oyelowo, who stars as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, said Sunday during an appearance at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. (See video at the bottom of this post.)
He directed criticism at both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the larger film industry for, historically, out of “white guilt,” telling stories about black people only through the eyes of white protagonists, saying, “So you have a very nice white person who holds black people’s hands through their own narrative.”
Because of the critical and commercial success in 2013 of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, in which he played a supporting role, that narrative is finally beginning to change, he contended, adding that it was only those films’ strong performances at the box office that led Paramount Pictures to back Selma.
Oyelowo made his remarks — at a ceremony at which he was being honored as one 2014’s virtuoso performers — when asked about being “the subject of Oscar snub outrage.” (Selma was nominated for best picture, but the fact that he and the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, were not triggered a torrent of criticism, especially since, for the first time since 2011, all 20 acting nominees are white. This prompted the viral Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and an SNL sketch about how King himself would have been disappointed by the news, as well as a defensive response from the black president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
“Have they come out!” the 38-year-old English actor of Nigerian descent joked at first when the evening’s moderator, Dave Karger, asked, “What is it like to be the subject of Oscar snub outrage? Are you like, ‘Yeah, people get angry that I wasn’t nominated’ or do you want to tell people ‘It’s OK, I’m gonna be all right.’ “
Oyelowo responded, “I’d say to people ‘Calm down; it’s gonna be fine,’ ” quickly adding with a conspiratorial whisper, ” ‘Be angry! Be angry!’ ” Returning to his normal voice, he said, ” ‘It’s OK,’ ” before switching back to his alter ego. ” ‘Tell them they’re a bunch of —’ ” he said before cutting himself off as the audience chuckled.
Turning serious, Oyelowo said, “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.”
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.
Oyelowo continued, “Those films are so hard to get made. People have often said to me, ‘Why has it taken so long?’ I mean, [King] was assassinated almost 50 years ago. There has been no film where Dr. King has been the center of his own narrative until now. That’s because up until 12 Years a Slave and The Butler did so well, both critically and at the box office, films like this were told through the eyes of white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt.”
He elaborated, “So you have a very nice white person who holds black people’s hands through their own narrative. We don’t want to see that pain again, so you don’t even go into what that pain was in an authentic way. Both of those things are patronizing to the audience. You can’t have people curating culture in this way when we need to see things in order to reform from them.”
According to Oyelowo, both 12 Years and The Butler “changed the narrative.” He explained, “I know for a fact that Selma got greenlit after both of those films made 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.”
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