During an appearance Sunday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in California, Selma star David Oyelowo spoke about his recent Oscar snub and how black actors are portrayed in Hollywood. His words, which echo those of many black actors before him, come on the heels of what many feel was a snub when Oyelowo didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Oyelowo, who portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, joked about the snub at first, letting everyone in the audience know that it’ll be fine. But then he addressed the matter seriously.
“No, look, historically—this is truly my feeling; I felt this before the situation we’re talking about, and I feel it now—generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative,” Oyelowo stated.
Oyelowo also gave the audience a brief history of the roles that black people have won Oscars for. Oyelowo felt that Denzel Washington should have won an Oscar for Malcolm X instead of Training Day, and that Sidney Poitier should have won for In the Heat of the Night instead of Lilies of the Field.
Although Selma garnered a best picture Oscar nomination, some people feel that the film has only a slim chance of winning in the category. People have criticized the movie for not accurately depicting President Lyndon Johnson, but Selma director Ava DuVernay has challenged every last one of them.
As Oyelowo spoke about the white-savior narratives that people expect to see in movies, he pointed out that it’s a movie trope that needs to end. “So you have a very nice white person who holds black people’s hands through their own narrative. We don’t want to see that pain again, so you don’t even go into what that pain was in an authentic way. Both of those things are patronizing to the audience. You can’t have people curating culture in this way when we need to see things in order to reform from them,” Oyelowo stated.
Change in Hollywood isn’t going to happen overnight. Every year there seems to be one white-savior movie after another. Just take a look at Kevin Costner’s most recent movie, which is fiction but reflects the same ideologies that Oyelowo and many other black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood have to deal with.
As Oyelowo so eloquently put it, movies like Selma “changed the narrative.” For that to continue, others need to follow in the footsteps of people like DuVernay to make sure black stories are told accurately and respectfully.