A decade after his breakthrough role as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, David Oyelowo says he is heartened by the long-overdue shift toward a more culturally diverse marketplace for onscreen storytelling.
As part of NATPE 2024’s official programming, Oyelowo appeared onstage in front of a lively crowd of 150 guests at the InterContinental Miami to discuss his wide-ranging career as an actor, director and producer before receiving The Hollywood Reporter’s “Trailblazer Award” — a commendation given to Hollywood creatives whose work reflects a commitment to amplifying marginalized creators and stories.
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“Streaming has really democratized things and the generational impact is seismic,” said Oyelowo, who joins recent THR Trailblazer honorees America Ferrera, Eva Longoria and Niecy Nash-Betts in receiving the award. “I know what marginalization looks like. I know how stories can break down prejudices. I feel it deeply because I’ve experienced it.”
Oyelowo’s star has risen precipitously in the last months with the premiere of Lawmen: Bass Reeves on Paramount+, a series in which he played the lead role. He also executive produced with his wife, Jessica, through their company, Yoruba Saxon (alongside Yellowstone’s Taylor Sheridan, 101 Studios and MTV Entertainment Studios).
Set between 1862 and 1877, the series centers on a freed slave who became the first Black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. It was the streamer’s most-watched series premiere globally in 2023, with the first two episodes netting 7.5 million viewers in the first week. The role has also nabbed Oyelowo robust awards-season attention, including Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild nominations.
Further expanding their reach, the Oyelowos signed an overall deal in December to exclusively develop and produce features and series for Apple+, while David is also a co-founder of Mansa, an ad-supported streaming platform highlighting Black culture that is available online, via smart TVs and soon launching on FAST Channels on Amazon Freevee and The Roku Channel.
Oyelowo said these milestones feel especially poignant considering the resistance he’s faced in Hollywood pitching and developing Black-centered stories. “Martin Luther King Jr. was the only American to have a holiday named after him in the 20th century, and yet no film existed that centered on him before Selma. Morgan Freeman tried for 30 years to tell the story of Bass Reeves. We were all told lies that those stories ‘didn’t travel’ and ‘weren’t global,’” he said. “And when you don’t have the data you just go, ‘OK.’”
Oyelowo said he first pitched the story of Bass Reeves around town in 2015 but was told, “We aren’t doing this because no one’s doing Westerns.” Then in 2017, after Sheridan’s Yellowstone was regularly luring more than 5 million viewers per episode, he started the process again. “Then it was, ‘We’re not doing this because everyone’s doing Westerns,’” Oyelowo recalled, laughing. “So it’s the confluence of streaming [data] coupled with cultural changes that led to not only Bass Reeves being made, but its level of [viewer] engagement. And by the way, Selma is actually now growing in notoriety — not diminishing.”
Oyelowo also treated the audience to an often lighthearted appraisal of growing up in Oxford, England, as one of three children born to Nigerian immigrants who had concerns about his acting ambitions. “My dad was my hero and someone I deeply admired, but the two biggest decisions of my life were in defiance of him: the career I chose and the woman I married,” he said, which elicited audible chuckles from the crowd. “Wow, a lot of recognition in the audience. We’ll have a support group after the event!”
Figures who have loomed large in Oyelowo’s Hollywood career also took center stage as he reflected on some of his most meaningful collaborators, including DuVernay (“She’s the closest thing I have in the world to a sister”); Selma producer Brad Pitt (“He said, ‘Don’t worry about [Selma’s reception]. You don’t know what your film is until 10 years after it’s been made,’ and cited Fight Club, which was considered a flop”); and Lincoln director Steven Spielberg (“It was such a well-oiled machine on that set. Celestial, almost”). He also discussed Daniels, his director on both The Butler and The Paperboy (“He’s seen things in me that I didn’t see in myself”) and his close friend Oprah Winfrey (“She said, ‘I am going to do for you what Sidney Poitier did for me.’ She’s taught me so much about money, success and failure”).
The conversation concluded with Oyelowo receiving his Trailblazer Award and reflecting on the often frustrating, cyclical nature of trailblazing. “What happens, especially with people of color, is you blaze a trail. Then the ground becomes hard again. Someone has to break the ground again and then you’re in a cycle of very tired people who feel like they’re not getting anywhere,” he said. “But if we can keep the ground plowed and fertile, there is a harvest for everyone.”
NATPE Global executive director Claire Macdonald said that Oyelowo’s appearance at the confab felt especially poignant given the challenges of last year, but he also reflected the bolstered mood at this year’s event.
“David is the perfect embodiment of everything we are striving for: to facilitate the globalization of TV and help dealmakers create authentic programming for their audiences,” said Macdonald, who has led NATPE Global’s first installment under new owner Brunico, which also owns Realscreen, Kidscreen, NATPE Budapest and operates the Banff World Media Festival.
Macdonald said this year’s event attracted more 1,500 global-content buyers and sellers from 70 countries, with 120 exhibitors — including TelevisaUnivision, Paramount, BBC Studios, Lionsgate and FilmRise — actively doing business on the bustling market floor.
“I believe last year’s [writers and actors] strikes have helped to make this year’s NATPE feel even more relevant because of the heightened demand for international programming,” Macdonald said. “Despite — or maybe because of — the challenges our industry faced in 2023, people seem optimistic. There’s a long road ahead before things settle, but I hope that the worst is behind us.”
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