Not a simple matter of impersonation: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. (second from the left, although you probably don’t need me to point that out) with the actors playing members of King’s inner circle---(from left to right) Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, André Holland as Andrew Young, and Stephen James as John Lewis---in Selma. Click on the photo to see the real King with some of the same real men.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln in Lincoln was transcendent to a level that no actor, not even one as good as David Oyelowo, playing any character, never mind an historical one, should be expected to match. In fact, I only bring it up because I think Selma’s screenplay was modeled on Lincoln’s and Day-Lewis had some advantages to work with Oyelowo didn’t, mainly due to the scripts they were handed, but starting with the effect of time on the images of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Over the past 150 years, Lincoln has become both more forgotten and better remembered. He’s better known and yet a stranger. Not only is there no one alive who remembers what he was really like. There’s no one alive who can remember anyone who was alive to remember what he was like. But a century and a half’s worth of memoirs, biographies, handed down stories and anecdotes, movies, plays, and television portrayals have combined to create a collective memory of the man. The real Lincoln is a mystery, but the essentially invented Lincoln is as familiar to most Americans and many non-Americans as an old friend. People just feel they know him or at least have a good sense of what he might have been like. And that gave Day-Lewis a solid character to play and play with and play against. And it gave Lincoln’s screenwriter Tony Kushner a character to write for.
Martin Luther King, though, is still well-known in the same way he was known when he was alive: as a public figure. Most people’s sense of what he was really like comes from what they’ve seen on television and read in newspapers, magazines, and grade school and high school history textbooks. They know him as a great orator, as a charismatic political leader, as a secular saint, which is to say, they know him as a distant figure way up there at the head of a crowd. There are many people alive who knew him intimately and could tell us what it was like to be in his company in private moments but many of them are still reticence, worried about preserving his public image, and the recollections of the others haven’t spread into the collective consciousness yet. This gave Oyelowo a too well-defined outer man whose appearance, gestures, expressions, and voice he had to match and very little inner man to re-create. He had to invent the private man and in that he faced the problem of having to do that without violating King’s public memory. Playing the outer man was a simple matter of impersonation. Playing the inner man required tact, discretion, indirection, and reserve. Day-Lewis could play it up. Oyelowo had to play it way, way down.
His challenge was compounded by his not having the lines to say. This was because Selma’s screenwriter Paul Webb had the same problem as Oyelowo in having to portray Martin Luther King without violating King’s public memory but also because he didn’t have the lines to give him. Kushner handled it brilliantly and beautifully but he had something to work with Webb didn’t, his main character’s own words.
Lincoln wasn’t just one of the two best writers who’ve been President---the other being Thomas Jefferson---he’s one of the great writers of American prose. King was a great writer in his own way, but mainly a great writer of speeches. Of course Lincoln was a speech writer too and his writing is mainly known by his speeches. But his style was more idiosyncratic and idiomatic. He was a politician and a lawyer. He crafted his speeches and his public writings with individuals as his audience in mind, individual voters, individual members of a jury. King was a preacher. Most of his writings and speeches are essentially sermons. He was always trying to stir the collective hearts of a crowd or at least the congregation. He was also the leader of a mass political movement and again he was trying to reach and move a crowd. That requires a different, more impersonal rhetorical approach. You can get a sense of what Lincoln might have sounded like when he talked to people one on one to a degree you can’t with King. That makes Lincoln easier to mimic. King’s private speech---and again, this is a consequence of the reticence of people who did talk with him in private---has to be wholly invented and that posed a risk Webb couldn’t take, not for a movie like Selma. It wouldn’t have been right to have played it too safe, but he had to be extra careful. And even if Webb hadn’t had to worry about not offending anyone it’s difficult to make any character sound like a real person talking. The upshot, though, is Kushner had both more material and a freer hand and that gave Day-Lewis more to work with. Day-Lewis had things to say. Oyelowo mostly had things to get across. Pretty much he had to move from speech to speech with interspersed with passages of exposition which were essentially short speeches themselves. He couldn’t talk like Martin Luther King because his King didn’t talk. He orated.
And this is why his portrayal of King was most persuasive and most moving for me when he was silent.
It was the pensive look in his eyes.
You can see it best in the photographs of King. There’s a sadness, a faraway-ness to him that showed up in many of his most glorious moments. He often appears to be somewhere else and that somewhere else is a dark and troublesome place for him. It’s as if he isn’t looking out from the mountaintop at the Promised Land, or even at the still long and difficult trek across the desert ahead, but back at the way he’s come and he’s seeing all his own missteps, hesitations, and changes of direction that took people out of their way instead of leading them forward. It’s the look of a man who knows he’s not the saint people think he is and that he believes he needs to be. It’s the look of someone who is growing increasingly burdened by his role and his mission and who is beginning to look forward to its end.
It’s been said that towards the end King seemed to be developing a death wish. I don’t know. I suspect nobody does for sure. I suspect not even Coretta Scott King knew although she worried about it. But I believe he saw what was coming and while he dreaded it and prayed for that cup to pass from his lip he was trying to resign himself to it.
I call it his Agony in the Garden look and I see him not yet at the point of being able to say, “Not as I will but as thou wilt.”
Oyelowo captures that look perfectly and I think that’s what lifts his performance far above the level of simple impersonation.