Actor David Oyelowo (“Lincoln,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) beams when asked how Chicago’s most famous personality changed his life. The actor, calling from Uganda, East Africa, answers without hesitation: “I met [Oprah Winfrey] on ‘The Butler’ and I told her about my dream to play [Dr. Martin Luther King in ‘Selma’] and she made it happen. She’s become like a mother to me. I can’t express how much I love her as a person. Chicago loves her! I love her!”
The Golden Globe Award-nominated Oyelowo is calling to chat about the Blu-ray and DVD release of “Selma” on May 5. In the film, the British actor stars as Dr. Martin Luther King during the eight months in 1965 that culminated in the iconic march from Selma, Alabama, to that state’s capital in Montgomery, and ultimately passage of the Voting Rights Act by Congress.
“It did surprise me that so many folks [in America] didn’t know [about Selma],” the British-born Oyelowo said. “Because the civil rights movement under his tenure is the most successful campaign [by the movement]. They arrived in Selma in January; the marches took place in March; and by August the law had changed. But in some states in the South they didn’t even teach [about Selma] because they didn’t like the [outcome]. I remember a white lady at one of the screenings standing up and becoming so emotional [when it ended] because she said she had never been taught what happened in Selma.”
High school students across the country will get a chance to learn about the events of Selma and its legacy thanks to an unprecedented move by Paramount Home Entertainment. The studio is sending a copy of the DVD and teachers’ companion study guides to every high school in the country, with the goal of reaching an estimated 18 million students. The project is a continuation of the “Selma for Students” initiative begun during the film’s theatrical run last year, which resulted in 300,000 students seeing the film for free at local theaters followed by classroom discussions about the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement.
“We had several field trips last year to the theater around the corner from our school, so our students were able to see the film. And prior to that our teachers had created units to prep them on the subject,” said Ramona Fannings, assistant principal at Simeon Career Academy. “What we tried to push in our history classes was trying to help our students learn how important it is to vote not only in national elections, such as the one coming up, but in every election; to have your voice heard in an aldermanic election, mayoral election, on referendums. We will use our copy of the DVD to revisit the topic next year, especially for students who have not seen the film, as it relates to the presidential election and other things going on in society now.”
Oyelowo spoke about the film, and how he hopes its message will continue to resonate with people of all races:
“The truth of the matter is, I would never have cast myself as Dr. Martin Luther King. Playing him was certainly not something I had lofty hope for or ambitions from a young age. In 2007 I read the script and I felt God tell me I was going to play him. Being a man of faith, I really do know that voice. That’s when the journey began. . . . Several times I was told “no” when I first auditioned. But my determination went from something spiritual to being one that was cultural. . . . As I was maturing as a man I felt I grew into being able to play him.
“I’d watch films like “J. Edgar” and other biopics and think, why is there a J. Edgar Hoover movie before a Martin Luther King movie? He’s the only American that has a holiday named after him in the 20th century, a transcendent human being who changed the nation. It got more and more egregious in my eyes that this [biopic] had never happened.
“As a Brit, for me, Dr. King was a citizen of the world. He was someone who even though he was black, from the south, a preacher — several things you could box him into — he was a man who spoke about [all] humanity, spoke of economic inhumanity. . . . Yes, he was American, but he transcended that. He transcended race, borders.
“We live in a world where people talk about their faith, but they don’t necessarily live it out. Dr. King practiced what he preached. He gave his life for the cause. That’s what true love is. Love is sacrifice.
“I learned that I’m not as brave as he was. I learned that I don’t think I could do what he did. I have four children and a wife who I dearly love. Every day of the 13 years he led the civil rights movement, up to his assassination, he knew his wife’s life, not just his life, was under threat, and yet he aimed to move the needle when it came to human rights, civil rights.
“I hope [students who see this film] learn the value of the vote, how we take that privilege for granted. With the heinous thing that happened in Ferguson [Missouri], the fact that exercising one’s right to vote will bring about change, that’s massive value.
“A lot of people don’t really appreciate that people laid down their lives for the right to vote. And the power of peaceful protest— the fact that love can ultimately overwhelm hate.
“I think it’s a huge thing for young people to learn that racism doesn’t make sense. I hope that people watching the film will really come to know this, that because of a color of someone’s skin you deny them their rights to live full lives, that they are somehow less than you.
“I don’t think that at any other time in history so many factions came together to serve one cause. Black, white, young, old, all sought political change. The march on Washington was symbolic and went on to get the Civil Rights Act passed. But voting rights would not have passed without Selma.
“What’s truly beautiful in America is pride in all of us being God’s children. You can’t just say that and not believe it.”