“I like to think of myself as a good actor,” says David Oyelowo, “but Martin Luther King, I ain’t.”
The 38-year-old British actor plays the venerated civil rights leader in Selma, a dramatic retelling of Dr. King’s 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.
It’s a stirring performance that has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor in a Drama. He admits he wasn’t a natural fit for the part— “I would never have cast me in this role, a British actor, having not done much work in Hollywood.”—but the film’s producer Oprah Winfrey (who also has a heart-wrenching cameo) said, “I can see King in you.”
The actor, best known for his work on the British TV show MI-5, told an audience at the AFI he always felt like he’d play King at some point. “Very soon after my wife and I moved to this country, I was told from above that I would play this role on the 24th of July, 2007. I couldn’t believe it, so I wrote it down.”
With the help of his higher power, Oprah, director Ava DuVernay, research and a weight gain of thirty pounds—eat lasagna late at night he says—Oyelowo found the character and won the blessing of Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter. “It was huge for me to bridge that gap between the production and the family,” OIyelowo told The Daily Beast.
Martin Luther King III, son of Martin and Coretta Scott King, called Selma, “a very emotional experience,” and hopes that the film’s success will spur Hollywood interest in his father’s life, work and legacy.
Steven Spielberg is reportedly working on a biopic and a new German film called Schwarzkopf BRD features King in a study of racial politics in Berlin.
In more traditional films Dr. King has been portrayed by everyone from Paul Winfield, who earned an Emmy nomination for his performance in King, a three hour TV miniseries, to Jeffrey Wright in Boycott, to son Dexter King in The Rosa Parks Story.
King siblings, Dexter and Yolanda, collaborated with filmmakers Rob Smiley and Vincenzo Trippetti on the most unique retelling of their father’s life. Combining animation and historical footage, Our Friend, Martin is a time travel story about a student sent back in time to meet King at significant moments in his life. The hour long film is difficult to find but features wonderful vocal performances from Angela Bassett, LeVar Burton, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Dexter King as his father at age 34.