David Oyelowo did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a BFCA, for portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.
David Oyelowo plays Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. the sort of figure that could easily be only simply lionized like the way Stephen Hawking was for the most part in The Theory of Everything or the way Louis Zamperini was in Unbroken. One of the strongest elements of Selma is that it actually avoids this and Oyelowo's performance contributes to this greatly. Oyelowo does something very interesting in his depiction of King in terms of his vocal performance. Oyelowo gets the essence of his sound down, but what is most interesting is the way he shows the way King's speech differs considering the audience. When King is speaking in public or merely to people he has not yet been introduced to Oyelowo actually delivers every line as if he is giving a speech, putting almost an excessive degree of careful diction. Oyelowo by doing this suggests well that to a certain extent King does purposefully build up the ideas around himself, and that he does need to actively be the great man so many view him as.
When he is at home or with only his close associates Oyelowo effectively changes his speech pattern that is more fitting to just a normal man. It technically is more natural in that it seems more like how someone would normally speak, and Oyelowo just with the way he delivers his lines establishes that King is not merely just an icon for his movement he is a man as well. In terms of being the icon though Oyelowo is terrific. Oyelowo is one of the performances where he does exude the essence of the real life figure so well, that even if his performance technically is not a 100% perfect imitation, it feels as though it is. He never simply seems to be aping King, but importantly we always see The most important scenes may be the various speeches that King delivers throughout to rouse the people to action. Oyelowo is outstanding in every speech particularly since he smartly differentiates every one that he gives. There is not a single purpose technically for every speech, and that can be seen through the ways that Oyelowo's manner changes for each.
In his initial speech to the people of Selma, Oyelowo completely commands the screen as he should, this is a constant with every speech that he delivers. His first though Oyelowo keeps it directly as a tactical speech to basically activate the people to the cause. Oyelowo delivers it with a striking passion and pivots nicely in points with a discontent in certain points to get the people to stand up wanting to take back their rights. His speech after one of the people is murdered Oyelowo effectively changes the style to something more personal and rather than the anger being projected to incite the crowd, this anger seems to come from deep within. Oyelowo still keeps it an impassioned speech but more vicious as he expresses the personal disgust of King at the extreme actions taken against his movement. His final speech in the film is again fantastic as he takes on a less confrontational and more of a triumphant tone. There is a strong and rather powerful spiritual bent in Oyelowo's delivery and signifies the victory through his jubilant performance.
Of course King's work is not only about speeches though and an interesting thing about the film is bluntly showing basically the mechanics of their activism. There is a plan in the protest and their is a purpose in King's moves. Oyelowo is good in being the leader as well and again does well to not portray this as a single side. In the scenes with his inner circle Oyelowo does portrays some exasperation fitting for a man who has been at his work for as long as he has been, his heart still is in it to be sure, but Oyelowo does suggest the wear of the life upon him. On the other hand when he goes to speak with some of the activists local to Selma Oyelowo plays these scenes with a different style. He instead does create a bit of an act as he puts on King as absolutely a leader who puts his everything into his task. Oyelowo shows King as almost excessively direct as he lays out his plan to the men, as though he is in absolute charge of the situation and knows exactly what is coming. Again Oyelowo is great by creating the actual effort in King's campaign.
Some of his most remarkable scenes are at home with his family and wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Oyelowo here is very compelling the way he actually presents King to be a somewhat cold figure and that the weight of his life has been detrimental to his home life. There is a strong distance between King and his family as almost you can see how his life rarely has been preoccupied with his family. What might be his very best scene in the film is when he is confronted by his wife over King's affairs with other women. Oyelowo is outstanding in the scene as he portrays King as almost shriveled to nothing in his guilt. His reaction is striking because Oyelowo shows that King knows he has done wrong, and that there is no explanation he can truly give. What perhaps stands out most is though Oyelowo does show a palatable shame in King, there is something about it in that he does not quite apologize even though he recognizes what he has done. Oyelowo does not portray King as a man who will reform himself in this behavior, rather as a man who is pained by this fault, but cannot change himself from these ways.
David Oyelowo gives a fascinating portrait of King by never making him some sort of legend. Oyelowo in a way he earns the victorious moments for King all the more by presenting the challenge. There is the scene where he turns back from the march, and Oyelowo does suggest that fear may be part of his motivation in that moment. Oyelowo makes it all the more powerful when the courage does come as he presents as something earned, not simply something that was always in him as though he was an otherworldly figure. Oyelowo reconciles the human weaknesses with the resilience and ambition in the man. David Oyelowo gives a great performance as Martin Luther King. He embodies the man as he should in terms of physical manner as well as his passion. Oyelowo does not stop there and does not just leave him as an image of King. Oyelowo bothers to go deeper with his performance realizing the man behind the icon, while still being absolutely convincing in creating the man who could be an icon.