It’s a good time to be David Oyelowo. After appearing in several projects that have received recent attention on this site, including George Lucas’ Red Tails and The Help, he’ll be seen in five more films this year, including Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy, crime drama One Shot opposite Tom Cruise, and Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln.
Next on his slate is the April 27th theatrical release of 96 Minutes, the SXSW ensemble drama centered on a car-jacking that takes a deadly turn. Oyelowo co-stars in a cast that includes Evan Ross, Brittany Snow and J. Michael Troutman. (For more on the film, see our previous posts HERE and HERE.)
In our recent conversation about 96 Minutes and his other upcoming projects, Oyelowo expressed his enthusiasm about the creative process on the indie film:
"We were going very hard and fast in Atlanta, and one of the amazing things about independent films, especially when you’re going at the kind of pace you have to on a low-budget movie, is that there’s a very kinetic energy on set that’s born out of the fact that you can’t dwell, you can’t be indulgent, and everyone has got to sort of muck in to get the job done. And I find that often actors who sign on to projects like this, if their head is on the right way about it, it creates a very creative atmosphere."
He was also attracted to the film’s handling of racial dynamics, placing his and Evan Ross’ characters as the do-gooders in the film and seeming to challenge some of the typical stereotypes, or audience expectations, of black males:
"When I read this script, the characters on the page felt like characters I recognized and could relate to, but also characters that, from a societal point of view, are often preconceived as being other than they are. That, in a sense, is where a lot of the problems in society come from - these preconceptions that then become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It would be one thing if I was playing the gangster who’s tatted up and driving by slowly in my car, trying to pull Evan down into a world of drugs and being a pimp or whatever. That’s a version of a film or a character that’s very ingrained in American cinema. I’ve seen that guy time and again. Duane, on the other hand, I haven’t seen too often."
He went on to describe his character, Duane as:
"A guy who may have had a bit of a criminal past with socioeconomic factors, or being with the wrong gang growing up, but has now made a choice to reform his life. But what you see in the film is how difficult a struggle it is to maintain that line considering the circumstances around you – whether it be crime, being low income, or a perception from law enforcement about who you are.
"You see in the film a moment where Evan’s character is sort of muddled to the ground and searched and just left there, on his way to school. You see the moment where I, because of the way I look, am deemed as a suspect instead of a Good Samaritan. These are the kinds of things that weigh down on you in society, where you just say ‘You know what, I should just become what they want me to be. It might just be easier.’ And that’s why I love this line Evan says in the movie, ‘Look at us. We’ve become exactly what they thought we would be.’ For me, that is the crux of the movie, in a sense."
As a UK native, he also believes the themes explored in the film can resonate with audiences outside the U.S.:
"They translate and transpose incredibly well to the environment I came up in, in inner city London, and that’s what I love about the film as well. It’s characters like Evan’s and mine that allow that to happen… Because my primary objective as an actor is the pursuit of truth. So I definitely feel like the film has a universal appeal on the basis of it dealing with socioeconomic issues that keep people imprisoned. And that is happening in every city across the globe."
Interestingly enough, as a Brit, Oyelowo has been called to star in several uniquely American stories as of late, not only playing what he describes as an “OG from Atlanta” in 96 Minutes, but also a Civil Rights activist in Lee Daniel’s forthcoming film The Butler, a cavalryman in Civil War drama Lincoln, and making a bid for the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Daniel’s still-in-development Civil Rights drama Selma.
“Considering that I’m British and I talk the way I do, I love it when a director takes a chance on me. I may not get too many directors who are going to have the confidence to let me do that, so I’m going to jump on it, and absolutely do all I can to nail it.”
Beyond the challenge of portraying American characters, he also seems to look forward to the challenge of telling Black American history, particularly in The Butler. As we’ve posted about recently, the plot centers on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler throughout the terms of eight American Presidents, and Oyelowo, who plays the butler’s son, describes it as “a project that’s very close to my heart.”
And he gave some indicators that his role in the film will indeed be a significant one:
"It’s a brilliant juxtaposition between what the butler goes through, and me as his son, who has a degree of shame and an issue with his dad serving “the man.” So his way of reacting to that is to go out and to be a Civil Rights activist. And so, while my dad is in the White House with Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Reagan, Carter, Nixon, I’m marching with King, I abscond to Malcolm X, I become a Black Panther and on and on. And the film charts what happens from a Civil Rights point of view in this country, by watching a man who is voiceless within the corridors of power, and his son who gains a voice by being out on the streets, working for rights for Black people in America."
He also warns against preconceived notions about another film that focuses on blacks in a position of servitude:
"What I love about this film is that it’s from the butler’s perspective. People may misconceive that this is another film in the vein of The Help, and it just isn’t. I was involved with that film and I’m proud of what we achieved, but The Butler just isn’t that movie."
As for what else we can expect from the film, Oyelowo calls it,“a very explosive, dynamic movie.” And he believes people will be drawn in by its multi-generational plot:
“It centers around this family – the butler, Forest Whitaker, his wife, Oprah Winfrey, me, his son, and my younger brother - who grow up as the world is genuinely starting to change for African Americans in this country. Our film starts with Forest Whitaker as a sharecropper’s son in the ‘20s, and it goes all the way up until Obama’s inauguration in 2009. So it’s an incredible sweep that charts the journey of Black people in this country through the 20th century."
Regarding Oyelowo’s third potential project with Daniels, Selma, he conveyed that it’s still “in a state of limbo,” but seemed optimistic that it (or a project like it) will come to fruition soon:
"I cannot understand a world in which we have a film about J. Edgar Hoover and about JFK and Malcolm X, and we don’t yet have a [narrative, theatrical] film about arguably the most heroic, in my view, African American in the 20th century, someone who stands as a representation of the struggles of black people in this country. I just cannot see that too much more time will pass by without that story getting a cinematic treatment. And of course my prayer is that I will be afforded the opportunity to do that."
96 Minutes premieres in AMC theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis on April 27.
You can also see David Oyelowo in Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere in theaters on October 12, and in Lincoln and One Shot this December.