British actor David Oyelowo is drawn to portraying impactful characters, especially Black historical figures throughout the diaspora. He first gained recognition for playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 film Selma. He then played King Seretse Khama of Botswana in 2016’s A United Kingdom, and now he takes on title role of Lawmen: Bass Reeves, the legendary figure believed to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
It earned him a Golden Globe nomination today for Best Actor in a Limited Series Made for Television in the Paramount+ drama.
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As one of the first Black U.S. deputy marshals west of the Mississippi, Reeves is said to have captured over 3,000 outlaws with expert marksmanship and detective skills. Oyelowo called the pioneering lawman a “quintessentially American hero” and said he felt “honored” to portray Black historical figures who fought adversity with tenacity and moral courage across different periods and places, fulfilling his passion for showcasing these change-makers.
Oyelowo was drawn to Reeves’ story because little is known about the lawman within American history, which the actor says “is not commensurate with the level of his achievements.” This nomination brings more shine and attention to his name and solidifies his hero status.
“We’ve seen a lot of negative portrayals, especially when it comes to global storytelling,” said the actor. “I recognize how important it is to showcase the truth of who Black people are globally, and stepping in where I find deficiencies from a representation standpoint is aspirational, and I look for inspirational figures who exemplify excellence.”
The script first came into his orbit in 2014 as an idea. One of the things the actor didn’t anticipate was the scale and scope of the show. He was “worried” the series would end up going with a “cheaper” version for cable or a “watered down” version of the story. As for a big-budget film, Oyelowo said: “None of the studios were prepared to take on a Black historical figure in the Western genre at that time. This was not a figure that ticked the boxes, for whatever reason.”
He observed how Taylor Sheridan “reinvigorated” the Western genre with Yellowstone, 1886 and 1923. It seemed apt to partner with the director on Bass Reeves’ story. “It was another opportunity to confront our industry with the validity of telling this story,” Oyelowo said. “With Sheridan, there was a platform on which to build this narrative the right way.”
One thing he learned about playing the character is the “resilience” of Black people in America. He talks about how “unfairly and unjustly” Black Americans were treated by this country before, during and after enslavement. Bass was an empowered man in one of the most volatile and dangerous places and times in American history, but he navigated it with “a level of excellence that matched his level of morality.”
“Black people in this country, especially in the era of Reconstruction, could have taken a far more vengeful approach to how they dealt with this country, but they didn’t,” the actor said. “They wanted to be citizens. They wanted to be additive to this country’s development, only to be slapped in the face with Jim Crow. “I came away with an enormous amount of admiration for how black people have conducted themselves in this country despite having been so brutally and unfairly treated.”
For decades, stereotypical and negative depictions of Black men have dominated Hollywood films and TV shows. These limiting portrayals as thugs and criminals have created a perception of Black men in popular culture. Changing these narratives with more diverse, complex and positive representations is crucial in a “progressive” Hollywood. Oyelowo mentions celebrating his nomination with Colman Domingo, nominated for Best Actor in a Drama in Rustinfor his portrayal of the famed civil rights leader, and Kemp Powers, director of Golden Globe-nominated animated feature Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse. All three are part of stories with Black male heroes.
“We’re just elated about being recognized,” he said. “This is not the norm, and it’s something we personally want to see a lot more of.”
Lawmen: Bass Reeves is streaming on Paramount+
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