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In 2001, the Oxford native played King Henry VI onstage for the Royal Shakespeare Company's This Is England: The Histories series.
“I didn’t know this at the time, but I was the first Black person to play a king at the Royal Shakespeare Company in its history,” Oyelowo, 45, told Yahoo Entertainment in our latest episode of Game Changers (watch above). “And that sort of garnered a lot of attention, and shone a light on some of the representation issues here in the U.K.”
Oyelowo went on to make waves onscreen, appearing in such films as The Last King of Scotland (2006), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Jack Reacher (2012) and The Butler (2013).
But it was the Ava DuVernay-directed Selma, which tracked the 1965 marches to Montgomery seeking equal voting rights, that really changed the game for the actor.
“Being of Nigerian descent, born in the U.K. — playing a character of that stature, that nature or that fame was not something I anticipated,” Oyelowo says. “It was huge.”
Selma created much, became a box-office success and was hailed by critics, but the film received only two Oscar nominations. Oyelowo’s snub was particularly egregious, and became an impetus for the #OscarsSoWhite social media movement that forced Hollywood to confront systemic discrimination.
“Inadvertently, unwittingly, myself, Ava DuVernay, the film, were sort of at the start of something that indisputably went about to bring about change,” says Oyelowo, who noted that following Selma's snubs at the 2015 Oscar nominations the following year wasn't markedly different, featuring a “blindingly white” slate of nominees, as one headline put it.
“It was bloodily fought. That Academy did not want to, or certain factions in the Academy, did not want to yield to the notion of change. Thankfully we had someone like Cheryl Boone Isaacs as the president at the time and that change did come about.” (Isaacs made a priority of diversifying the Academy's membership in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite.)
Oyelowo, who recently make his directorial debut with the multicultural coming-of-age adventure The Water Man, likened #OscarsSoWhite to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has gained prominence following George Floyd’s murder and a national racial reckoning over the past year.
“So much of the change happening in the world right now, you just have to attribute it to what the internet has done by way of disseminating information,” he says. “Even the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd, that just simply doesn’t happen if the public aren’t as aware as they were because the footage was there. Because social media is there. … People now have the veil lifted as to why the world we live in is the way it is.”
— Videos produced by Jon San and edited by Luis Saenz
Watch David Oyelowo talk about being inspired by Goonies and E.T. in making The Water Man:
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