"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 in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward,” Oyelowo said during an on-stage interview at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Sunday.
The remarks, which were first reported by The Hollywood Reporter, also accuse the film industry of having a “white guilt” problem. Oyelowo points out that he is the first actor to portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a script not told through the eyes of the white protagonist.
“There is a fear of white guilt. 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 really go into what that pain was in an authentic way,” said Oyelowo. “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 move forward from them.”
To illustrate his point about subservient roles, Oyelowo pointed to the two of the most-decorated black actors in Academy Awards history: Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier. Oyelowo said Washington should have won a best actor Oscar for playing Malcom X; instead, he won it for playing a villain in "Training Day." Similarly, Oyelowo thinks Poitier should have been recognized with an Oscar for his portrayal of a police officer "In the Heat of the Night;" instead he was given the award for playing a handyman in "Lillies of the Field."
Other examples support Oyelowo’s argument about black actors and the Academy Awards. The only black actress to win a best actress statuette, Halle Berry, played a character who endured a graphic sex scene with a racist white man. And of the six black women who have won best supporting actress Oscars, two played maids (Hattie McDaniel and Octavia Spencer), one played a slave (Lupita Nyong’o), and one played an unemployed and abusive woman living in low-income housing (Mo’Nique). In addition, Whoopi Goldberg won her Oscar in the same category for her role as an eccentric medium in "Ghost," rather than for playing the empowered Celie in Steven Spielberg's feature film adaptation of "The Color Purple."
And in an move that seems related to white guilt, the same year that "Do the Right Thing," Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film about race relations in America, was left out of the Oscar’s best picture race, "Driving Miss Daisy," a film about a white woman in the South who befriends her illiterate black driver after teaching him how to read, won the award. Morgan Freeman did not win for playing the driver, but an award went to Jessica Tandy, who played his employer.
The solution? In order to move past the current self-fulfilling prophecy for black actors, society as a whole needs to come to the point where there isn’t a presumed notion of who black people are, Oyelowo said.
“We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things," he said. "But we have been leaders. We have been kings. We have been those who changed the world. Those films where that is the case are so hard to get made."
That narrative could finally be changing, according to Oyelowo, due in part to the success of last year’s films "The Butler" and "12 Years a Slave," which captured the Academy Award for best picture. It was their box office success that made "Selma" a reality, he noted.
“I know for a fact that 'Selma' got green lit after both of those films made almost $200 million each. I know that because Paramount said to us, 'Well, that means that 'Selma' will probably make around $98 million. So let's make it.' But bless them for doing it. I love you Paramount. I love you. I love you. But that's just the truth of the matter is that, up until now, it's been so hard to get these films made. But now they're doing well internationally and critically and otherwise,” Oyelowo said.
Ava DuVernay, Selma’s director, who was also snubbed in this year’s Oscar race and would have been the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s first black female directing nominee, made a brief but simple response on Twitter, writing that Oyelowo was “stating facts.”
Among the 20 actors and actresses nominated for the most outstanding performances at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, all were white for the second time in almost two decades. Not just Oyelowo was snubbed but also every performer from “Selma.” The Academy Awards’ lack of representation of people of color did not go without a response from the American public. In the aftermath of the nominations, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending on social media. The hashtag has generated nearly 90,000 tweets since Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 15, according to the Twitter analytic site Topsy.