There is a date that actor David Oyelowo will never forget. July 24, 2007. Two months after he and his wife, Jessica, moved from England to Los Angeles to further their careers. He had just read the script for a film called Selma, about the civil-rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. A voice spoke to him. You will play Dr. King.
“I remember the date because it was such a shocking revelation,” David told Sojourners magazine. He knew it was the voice of God. The same voice had led him to marry Jessica nine years earlier. But this had to be a mistake. Dr. King with a British accent? David was descended from Nigerian royalty. His family had never experienced the Jim Crow American South.
The director of the film agreed—“You’re no King,” he said at David’s audition. That was that.
Or was it? David landed supporting roles in a few critically acclaimed films, yet felt compelled to spend his free time following King’s footsteps through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia. A friend of Dr. King urged David to watch the preacher’s sermons. He played the footage over and over. He discovered a common bond with King that was more than skin deep. Both were committed fathers of four children. Both were outspoken in their faith. Both believed God had called them to their careers for a higher purpose.
“One night in Atlanta, I was about to brush my teeth—and I saw Martin Luther King staring back at me in the mirror,” David says. “I freaked out.”
Meanwhile, Selma was stuck in development limbo. Then the producers hired Lee Daniels, who’d directed David in The Butler. He saw that David was born for the role.
Critics agreed. David was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Selma struck a chord with audiences too—at a time when Dr. King’s message of love and reconciliation needed to be heard again.