THE BLOG
01/14/2015 09:36 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Selma's David Oyelowo on Playing MLK and What It Means to Be a Christian

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

"I do know the voice of God."

That's what David Oyelowo, the actor who beautifully portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new film Selma, told me last week. It's that voice, he said, that called him to play the role.

I was at the December preview of Selma in Washington, D.C., and then took my family to see it at an early showing on Christmas Day. I sometimes respond emotionally to films, but Selma made we weep. It also made me grateful that for the first time in 50 years, a big studio had finally made a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in the movement around him in Selma. I believe this movie, unlike most others, could actually change the nation's conversation about race and reconciliation at a crucial time, perhaps even providentially.

On the premiere night, I met David Oyelowo, who spoke publically after the film about his faith. I don't hear that kind of talk very much in D.C., but David was open and forthright, saying that playing the great Christian leader became part of his personal calling as a Christian.

In our conversation afterward, I asked David what he meant by those words. His answer prompted me to ask for an interview with him before the film, which debuted last weekend, came out. He and I talked late last week.

Listen to the full interview here.

Believe me, you will want to listen to this conversation with David Oyelowo about what he learned about the personal faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his own -- and how "playing the character by being the character" has changed his own life.

The "visceral connection" actor David Oyelowo felt with King after reading the script shaped his role in the film, which he describes vividly in the conversation I had with him. What moves Oyelowo most in this world is "sacrificial love" and the willingness to lay down one's life for others. That's his understanding of Jesus, and what he saw in King, as he explains in this conversation. That's what it means to be "a Christian," the actor says.

"I always knew that in order to play Dr. King, I had to have God flow through me because when you see Dr. King giving those speeches, you see that he is moving in his anointing," Oyelowo said.

Many historians just see King as a "civil rights" leader, but they don't fully understand how being a minister and a faith leader made his role in the movement possible. Oyelowo believes, after the years of research into King and the civil rights movement, that King could not have led this movement had he not been a "man of faith."

"I don't think [King] could have as stuck ... to the theme of nonviolence and love in the face of hate if he didn't feel that command and that notion from God." Oyelowo said. "... His faith was the engine for what he believed in and how he acted."

Oyelowo and I discussed the recent controversy about the portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the film, the timing of which closely coincided with the beginning of voting for Oscar nominations, and he spoke of both King's and Johnson's legacies.

My own knowledge of the history -- from both many readings, conversations, and from working with presidents -- is that King came to Johnson literally on the way home from getting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo and asked LBJ to help secure a voting rights act now that the civil rights law had been passed. Johnson was supportive, perhaps more than the film portrays, but was very reluctant and unsure he could accomplish such a thing so soon after the passage of civil rights. He hoped King could wait a while, but that's when King decided to go out and organize a national campaign in a small town in Alabama that nobody had heard of -- Selma.

I'm very grateful that Lyndon Johnson went to a joint session of Congress to ask for a Voting Rights Act, and many other presidents might not have done that. But King made all that possible, by "changing the wind" in the country, as I say it, through the momentous campaign in Selma, which the film depicts so powerfully.

Oyelowo's take on the so-called controversy? "I truly believe that the film has potential to be an agent of much-needed healing for this country. The devil doesn't enjoy that."

But plainly, this was a movement conceived and led by black people that changed the trajectory of the nation, and showed again how change usually comes first from the outside of power, not the inside, and from the bottom and not the top of society.

We can't ignore the timing of this film. Out of the many biopics Hollywood has produced in the past 50 years, this is the first theatrical release on Dr. King. In light of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the marches throughout the country calling for racial justice, the film's subject matter is all the more compelling and its timing more opportune.

According to Oyelowo, "We wrapped on the third of July. Michael Brown was killed on the ninth of August. There was no way that we could know a historical film could feel as relevant as it is in the shape of Selma. I think God knew all along."

Watch the film as it opens this weekend. Join with other churches to watch it together in the #SELMAHandInHand campaign. Take your kids, your neighbors, your friends, your pastor, your congregants -- and use it to change the national conversation on race.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book,The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.