David Oyelowo: The Academy Only Celebrates Black Actors in “Subservient” Roles

David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo argued that black actors are only recognized with Oscars when they portray "subservient" characters. Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Moviegoers may have been surprised to see Selma's breakout star David Oyelowo left off the list of Best Actor nominees for the 2015 Oscars, but the actor himself is taking his snub in stride. "I say to people [about being left out of the category], 'Calm down, it's okay.'" Wait, really? "No, get angry!" he joked during a panel discussion at the Feb. 1 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

When The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed their Oscar nominees Jan. 15, the Internet revolted in outrage because all 20 nominations in acting categories were given to white performers. Speaking at the film festival, Oyelowo – who portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr., in the acclaimed retelling of the historic Selma march – brought up the notion that black actors are seldom celebrated for their roles as people of prominence.

"Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or in the center of our own narrative driving it forward," the British actor, 38, said. "We have been slaves, we have been criminals . . . but we've been leaders, we've been kings, we've been those who change the world."

David in Selma
Paramount Pictures

Confirming that he was approached for Selma only after 12 Years a Slave and The Butler dominated the box office, earning well over $200 million each worldwide, Oyelowo accused the film industry of "curating culture" in a way that patronizes moviegoers.

"[Until] 12 Years a Slave and The Butler did so well . . . films like [Selma] were told through the eyes of white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt. You have a very nice white person who holds black people's hands through their own narrative. And also, you don't want black people to see that pain again, so you don't really go into what that pain was in an authentic way. Both of those things are patronizing to the audience," Oyelowo argued. "You can't have people curating culture in this way when we need to see these things to get past them."

Although Oyelowo was left out of the Best Actor category, his film was recognized in the Best Picture category, and will face off against Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, among others at the annual trophy fest on Feb. 22.

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