Midway through Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 2013’s true-story portrait of a black man who worked at the White House under eight presidents, the character played by David Oyelowo is in a room with an actor in the role of Martin Luther King Jr.
Oyelowo’s Louis Gates, the radicalized son of the titular servant played by Forest Whitaker, is talking to the civil rights leader, a champion of nonviolent protest. It’s a telling moment, with King addressing the “subversive role of the black domestic” in American life.
And it was a tough scene for Oyelowo (pronounced oh-yellow-oh) to play, not so much because of the internal conflict his character faced, but because Oyelowo had long committed to star in a film, Selma, in which he was going to play King.
“To be in a scene with Dr. King in The Butler was strange because at the time we had been struggling to get Selma off the ground, and hadn’t managed it. To be perfectly honest, it felt like a bit of a mocking situation. ‘Really? I’m not going to get to play him, but I get to act opposite him?’”
Selma finds King at a pivotal moment in his life, in his quest for equality: the 1965 campaign to secure voting rights for Southern blacks, leading to the historic march through Alabama from Selma to Montgomery — a march that came in the wake of bloody protests, pitting blacks against whites, police and Ku Klux Klan against civil rights leaders, the clergy, and activists from the north.
“We made this film to entertain, to inform, to highlight this incredible time in America’s history,” says Oyelowo, on the phone from Toronto recently. “But we also did it to honor these incredible heroes, some of them who are known, some of them who are known less than they should be known.”
For Oyelowo, the Oxford-born son of Nigerian parents, the challenge was daunting: to honor the legacy of King, to capture the poetry and power in his oratory, the intensity of his demeanor, his resolve and sense of purpose.
“As a Brit coming to this, you put an extra amount of pressure on yourself to get it right, because inevitably you’re going to endure a little bit more scrutiny than maybe you otherwise would,” he says. “But I think even if you’re an American, even if you’re from Atlanta and playing Dr. King, you couldn’t just walk in off the street and think, ‘I know what he sounds like, I know who he was,’ and just throw yourself in front of a camera. . . .
“The thing that I really wanted to get right was to join the dots between the man we know and the man we don’t. . . . You have to be able to evoke his oratory, you have to be able to get to a semblance of what he looked like, but what we know less about is who he was behind closed doors. Who he was in solitary moments. And so that’s where I had to imbue the character with humanity. . . . And to join those dots in a way that feels integrated and believable.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer