The blockbuster actor with unflinching faith has a fresh vision for Christianity in film.
A lot of what you need to know about David Oyelowo can be gleaned from a brief, viral, almost instantly GIF-able clip from the 2015 Academy Awards.
On the heels of John Legend and Common’s rousing, staggering performance of Selma’s “Glory,” the cameras panned the Oscar crowd, who had leapt to their feet as one in spontaneous, rapturous applause.
The adulation was richly deserved, but one man stuck out in particular: Oyelowo, who starred in Selma as Martin Luther King Jr. He was seated near the front, suited in a smartly tailored, Cabernet-red tuxedo (which would land him at the top of Esquire’s list of best-dressed men of the Oscars the following morning), applauding while tears ran freely down his cheeks.
Even in our age of 24/7 celebrity coverage, in which a Google image search can turn up photos of Gwyneth Paltrow expressing every candid emotion known to man, the moment seemed purely human and vulnerable. The Oscars almost didn’t deserve it.
The reason the moment was so indicative of Oyelowo (pronunciation: O-yellow-wo), is that, in person, it is exactly how he comes across. He is put together, but authentic—impeccably collected and utterly personable.
Oyelowo is becoming well-known for his ability to play other people, but it’s almost as astonishing just how easily he inhabits his own skin.
Parting the Red Carpet
Oyelowo’s presence at the Oscars was notable for another reason. For most of the awards season, his blistering Selma performance was widely expected to net him the Oscar for Best Actor, so it was a bit of a scandal when he wasn’t even nominated (Neil Patrick Harris even mocked the Academy for the snub during his hosting gig).
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing,” Oyelowo says, with refreshing candor. “Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that. You could argue that all the noise around not getting nominated actually gave the film more of a profile and more of a presence than if it had gotten nominations.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “I would have no problem being an Oscar nominee or winner, and that’s something I hope is part of my future. But for right now, I feel the film did everything it was supposed to do.”
If you’re the betting sort, put money on an Oscar nomination being part of Oyelowo’s future. Rarely has an actor seemed to come so out of nowhere and yet simultaneously seemed so destined for greatness. After Selma, it became clear that Oyelowo belongs among our finest talents—a commanding, charismatic, magnetic force on screen and in person.
Although it seems like Oyelowo burst into fame overnight, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We all know from a biblical point of view of what God does in the secret place before you’re then put out in public,” he says. “We see that with Moses, we see that with David, we see that with Joseph, and with Jesus Himself. I feel that’s been my journey as an actor.”
Something else you need to know about Oyelowo: He is wildly, plainly, unapologetically Christian. He’s obsessed with Jesus. You can hardly get him to talk about anything else.
“I’m definitely an example of God using the foolish things of this world to confound the wise,” he says. “I know I’ve been given these opportunities for a reason. I’ve been given a degree of notoriety. I can now try to marry Hollywood’s desire to get to a faith-based audience, and try to get us as people of faith wanting to have films made that have broader reach and have high production value.”
This is something Oyelowo is passionate about: raising the standard for faith-based movies. Not that he even wants to call them that.
“We’ve had so many faith-based movies that I think are sub-par, I almost want a new phrase for them,” he says.
He believes the market is ready for a new kind of film in which the production quality is high, the stories are compelling and the message is forceful.
“Hollywood has done some of these films and some of them are ginormous biblical movies, but you can tell the people making these are not invested in the truth of what those stories are biblically,” he says. “It shows in the work. It shows that they’ve just basically treated it as, ‘OK, millions of people believe in this certain Old Testament story. It has action elements, it has epic elements, it has murder, it has this that and the other. Let’s go make a movie, and at the very least, all the Christians will come and we’ll break even and if we go beyond that, great.’
“The Bible I read, it doesn’t really correlate with those films.”
But he says, before Christians get too judgmental of Hollywood, they need to consider the plank in their own eye.
“Then, on the other side, you have films being made that are basically preaching to the choir,” Oyelowo says. “They are an extension of what you sometimes get in a church service, which is that the youth group put together a play to illustrate a biblical story or a biblical scene.
“Everyone goes. And isn’t that wonderful because we are people of grace and we are people who love the message. So as long as that’s coming through, we’re very forgiving of the fact that it’s not well acted, it’s not well written and really no one outside of this church would be interested in it.
“I think that there are films that are basically extensions of what you get in any given church on a Sunday morning.”
Oyelowo wants to reach a point where people who believe the Gospel, who believe in miracles and believe in the power of salvation are also “fantastically good artistically, creatively and have a vision beyond a core Christian audience.” Then, he says, Christians will start producing great faith-based movies.
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