Hollywood likes its black actors just fine; it just prefers to see them in roles where they are subservient to their white counterparts. That’s the claim that Selma star David Oyelowo made while at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, saying black actors earn awards “more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative.”
Oyelowo’s absence from this year’s field of Best Actor Oscar nominees has been the source of much debate, though he initially joked about his own omission—saying, “I’d say to people ‘Calm down; it’s gonna be fine,” before adding, “Be angry! Be angry!” in a whisper. However, he more seriously expressed his concerns about the role that “white guilt” plays in the Academy—and the world in general:
We’ve just got to come to the point whereby there isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy—a notion of who black people are—that feeds into what we are celebrated as, not just in the Academy, but in life generally. We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things. But we have been leaders, we have been kings, we have been those who changed the world.
Those films are so hard to get made. People have often said to me, ‘Why has it taken so long?’ I mean, [King] was assassinated almost 50 years ago. There has been no film where Dr. King has been the center of his own narrative until now. That’s because up until 12 Years A Slave and The Butler did so well, both critically and at the box office, films like this were told through the eyes of white protagonists because 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 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 also expressed optimism that the success of 12 Years A Slave and The Butler represents a possible turning point, saying that these films proved the commercial and critical viability of movies that are more challenging to white viewers. He specifically credited those movies with helping Selma to get made, and thanked Paramount for its support.