Actor David Oyelowo is best known for playing Martin Luther King Jr in last year's Selma, a controversial movie accused of exaggerating and manipulating truths to fit the film's timely agenda. Whatever people may think about it - its story or its supposed agenda - the real thing to be taken away are the film's terrific performances. Filled with actors and actresses saturated with passion for MLK Jr., the cast were led by David Oyelow's truly outstanding performance.
Another notable achievement by Oyelowo was his recent performance in A Most Violent Year, and while he didn't get a huge amount of screen time, he sure made a lot out of a little. He played a diligent and honorable lawman searching for justice against the mob. He, again, found himself immersed in a well-written and- acted film, playing the role of a unique character who played a significant part in the development of the story.
Before A Most Violent Year he found himself attached to a Christopher Nolan project unbeknownst to Oyelowo and movie-goers, a film that wasn't going to perform as well as anticipated. The story began to shrivel after the halfway point in the film, close to when Matt Damon's character is introduced. Even then, Oyelowo was fortunate enough to play the role of one of the films most interesting characters, who helped progress the film into a more meaningful direction.
While promoting Nightingale, a new and highly anticipated HBO movie set to air on May 31st, David Oyelowo was interviewed by NPR and expressed his displeasure with portraying "the black best friend". While his displeasure doesn't have anything to do with Nightingale, he used the forum to send a message to those who'd pursue him for such a role.
This was Oyelowo's full statement:
"Don't send me your script if you want me to play the black best friend. I just won't do that. You can feel when it's literally an afterthought; you can feel when it's like, 'Oh quick, let's get some color in here.' That I won't do because it's disrespectful and, for me, I'm either part of the solution or I'm part of the problem."
I find Oyelowo's point to be a very good one, and it's an idea that's been found in comedy for a long time now, using terms like "token black man."
If you're an avid movie-goer, you've likely come across ever-awkward characters, forced into a story like colorful sprinkles of diversity on bowl of all vanilla ice-cream. Whether it was a tool to put a man or woman of color into a film to drop a one-liner, for them to support an idea provided by one of their more pale counterparts or to provide an awkward "white people aren't so bad" vibe, the outcome is often all the same. Sure, there are plenty of "white people aren't so bad" stories, and when you measure a majority of any American culture, you're not likely to find a large portion of that group who suffers from true racism. True racism, the belief that one race is inherently better than another, just isn't a common experience for many Americans, regardless of what we're being sold by the local or national news.
The Blindside is a good example of a film where "white people aren't so bad." I think that what people are bothered about is the general perception of racism and a lack of experience, and then we see one culture trying to aid another so vigorously that it comes off like fiction.
A film that I think Oyelowo could be referring to is, of instance, one of my favorite comic book movies: Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008). In this film, we meet Tony Stark's "black best friend", the character of James Rhodes, who just wasn't a necessary character. His presence and character didn't contribute to the progressing story in any significant way. This just never caught my attention until I started considering what David Oyelowo said, and letting his words resonate with me, I started to see what he was saying, even about films I love and cherish.
If we stop and listen to what he's saying, I think we won't find it hard to find positive and negative examples of what's being implied. This also brings me to question why I'm naturally so sensitive to seeing my favorite Caucasian comic book characters portrayed by African American actors. I've become so attached to a character, and full of nostalgia and preference, I guess the nerd in me just wants the character itself to peel off the pages and come to life. If the page is white, yet is portrayed as a black character, my brain has to process it for an extra few seconds, sort of as a reality check.
I still favor characters to be portrayed as close as possible to its source material, and for a comic book nerd like myself, Tony Stark is no less real than Oyelowo's MLK Jr. I do think the hour glass is running out on how much time we have left to feel any semblance of these ideas. I would rather have diversity in the universes I explore, whether real or in fantasy, and if there aren't enough authentic and interesting characters in both supporting and lead roles for black actors and actresses, as well as others, the problem then becomes much deeper than a fan's racial preference for a particular character.
Marvel, as of the last decade or so, has been modifying their characters to adhere to a diversified America, hereby adding African characters, as well as African American characters. Women are playing an increasingly bigger role on many platforms, and this includes comic books. The world of women in comics is becoming unique in the sense that it's distancing itself from it's more sensual past and into more conservative, realistic, or at least respectable, points of view. Ms. Marvel and Black Panther are both taking center stage in Marvel's Cinematic Universe in the coming years, which will shake up the Marvel universe as we know it.
If one wants to compare the significance in similar size roles and the influence writing has on these characters, compare Captain America: Winter Soldier and the character of Falcon against that in Iron Man with James Rhodes aka War Machine.
Much of America has been ignorant to the absence of African Americans in many stories. While many of these stories were written without intentionally excluding diversity, they still exists. Do you remember that one black character in "The Lord of the Rings" series? Yea, me neither. While this story was written with European culture in mind, I personally haven't been a part of a culture where I see a film and wonder where "my" people are. I'm sure if the story was imagined with African locations or cultures in mind, we'd see an African culture.
A similar excuse is made by early comic book writers. Writing for a writer is a matter of expressing his visions in a story, which are often influenced by experiences and thoughts, whilst not intentionally excluding anything or anyone in particular. Fortunately today, we are seeing large shifts, as writing is becoming more diverse. We are seeing projects on many platforms, composed of a very diverse groups of creators, which will inevitably alter our future on these platforms and change the way in which we perceive things.
I, for one, am happy that David Oyelowo has made a valid point, which he has managed to convey with well thought-out words. It has impacted how I think about racial issues in entertainment platforms without it taking anything away from issues of racism we still experience to this day. Thanks David Oyelowo!
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