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Actor David Oyelowo Talks Faith, Family & Why Love Should Be More Give Than Take

"There's an element to love that is work. There is an element that is pure self-sacrifice."

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As a young girl, I can vividly remember one of my favorite uncles always greeting me with: "Hey little Black child!" To which I would smartly retort, "I'm not Black, I'm brown!" He always laughed and picked me up afterwards, much to my frustration, excitement and utter confusion. Such was the struggle of a five-year-old who had yet come to terms with the concept of semantics. But in spite of it all, what was abundantly clear was the amount of love my uncle and I shared. And in the new Blumhouse thriller Don't Let Go, starring David Oyelowo and Storm Reid, that sentiment is undoubtedly the beautiful undercurrent that steers this psychologically twisted tale.

Shown through an exhilaratingly suspenseful yet understandably confusing lens, what stands out most of all in this film is the loving yet nuanced dynamics of family. Which is a theme Oyelowo admits he was extremely drawn to from the beginning. "I was very just blown away by how much the script packed in. The action, the time travel, the suspense," the Selma star tells xoNecole during our midday chat. "And then in the middle of all of it, is this beautiful and unconventional relationship between an uncle and his niece. And this sort of heart-thumping question of, 'Is he going to be able to save her?' I was just really taken with it."

In Don't Let Go, the 43-year-old Nigerian English American stars as Detective Jack Radcliff, who gets a shocking phone call from his recently murdered niece Ashley (played by the "emotionally mature and very special" Reid). Working together across time, they race to solve and prevent her murder before it can happen.

In this xoChat, we talk exclusively with the Golden Globe nominee about his latest project, being a father of four, and why self-sacrifice is paramount in marriage.

xoNecole: This movie deals a lot with not taking things at face value, without giving too much away. Was there ever a point in time where you walked into a situation and it turned out to be the total opposite of what you were expecting?

David Oyelowo: Oh gosh, I mean you know the adage: don't judge a book by its cover. I think it's very apt. You know, everyday we make judgements based on what's in front of us. And I can tell you for a fact that if someone I love and lost suddenly called and told me they were calling from a different time plane--I would definitely be skeptical and that's what was fun to play in the film. You're watching this character do what I definitely would do and I think most people would do. Where we get to say, "Am I going crazy? What is this? Is someone trying to trick me, is this a prank? Oh my goodness maybe this is real. It is real. How am I going to tell everyone? They're going to think im crazy" (laughs). You know, I just loved that I got to play the reality of that instead of just the fantasy

Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures

Definitely. This movie also touches on the importance of time and choice in probably a more nuanced way than a lot of other films. And seizing the small moments in our day to day lives. Particularly in the film, Uncle Jack and his niece have these seemingly nonchalant conversations but we soon learn that we should’ve all been paying a bit more attention.

100 percent. You're alluding to a scene where she calls me and I'm busy and as you say, I don't pay her the right amount of attention. I do think the film is about not taking anything for granted. You know, treasuring those relationships. And in the case of my character, what someone would then be prepared to do once they realize how painful it is to lose someone you love and what you're prepared to do to get them back.

Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures

"I do think the film is about not taking anything for granted. You know, treasuring those relationships. And in the case of my character, what someone would then be prepared to do once they realize how painful it is to lose someone you love and what you're prepared to do to get them back."

If you could go back in time and alter an important event in your life, whether good or bad, would you and why?

There were definitely some fashion decisions I made in my day probably in the 90s, particularly. My kids really enjoy making fun of me thanks to the photographic evidence. I did have a Marky Mark, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air phase. Those photographs are devastating (laughs). So yeah.

You know what? I would LOVE to see those.

You will NEVER see it (laughs). Just picture a high top and every opportunity to show off my Calvin Klein underwear possible. That's basically what that one was.

I’m disappointed but that’s actually hilarious to hear. So besides fashion choices, what would you say is the biggest difference between the David at the beginning of your career and the David now?

Oh my goodness, that's a good question. The David now very much recognizes that you have got to really just enjoy the journey and be less focused on the results. I think earlier on in my career, it was all about box office, and the reviews, and accolades, you know--tangible evidence of success. But there's no way of predicting how any project you do is going to come out. And sometimes there are mitigating factors that you just can't control. In fact, ALL the time there are mitigating factors you can't control. And I have in the past allowed those things that I can't control rob me of the joy and achievement of just getting to be in things and tell stories.

Sometimes in the moment you don't recognize that, especially [in] films and television shows. So you know, I have grown into the knowledge of: just do the work, enjoy the journey, and then just trust that that work will eventually be seen and appreciated.

"In the past allowed those things that I can't control rob me of the joy and achievement of just getting to be in things and tell stories... Sometimes in the moment you don't recognize that. So, I have grown into the knowledge of: just do the work, enjoy the journey, and then just trust that that work will eventually be seen and appreciated."

I want to switch gears a bit now. There's often a lot of talk about millennials in particular: what we do right, what we do wrong, what we don't know, what we think we know...

Mm-hmm. Right.

So I’m curious, what do you think millennials get wrong or right about their perception of love and family?

I think there's a notion that independence is the absolute epitome of self-realization. I actually feel people are designed to be dependent on each other. And I think this striving for independence is why you have so many lonely people. It's why "commitment" has become almost a swear word, if you will. Because there is this notion with the younger people--and I don't know what we've done in terms of society--but there's this notion that empowerment, true femininity and masculinity is tied to being able to be self-reliant entirely.

And anyone who's lived on a deserted island for a week will tell you: I just don't think we're designed to be alone (laughs). I think we're designed to rely upon each other. I think we're designed to be vulnerable with each other. And I truly do believe that we are, we are designed to love in a way that is not just about what I can take, whether it be sexually or financially or, or emotionally. But to give, I think giving is the height of who we are. And that is also something that is in short supply these days.

Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures

"There's a notion that independence is the absolute epitome of self-realization. I actually feel people are designed to be dependent on each other. And I think this striving for independence is why you have so many lonely people. It's why 'commitment' has become almost a swear word if you will... There's this notion that empowerment, true femininity and masculinity is tied to being able to be self-reliant entirely."

What’s the biggest misconception you feel people in general have when it comes to the conversation of love, marriage, and family?

Well, I think something missing in terms of both love and family is just how important family is. There are real challenges to the--and I don't really like calling it an institution--but to the beauty of marriage. I've been married 21 years next month and my parents were married before my mom passed away, for all of their adult lives. And I know there are reasons why people end up breaking up and all of that, but I feel like in society now, I don't know that we work as hard as we should to stay together. I think that there's a misconception that love should always feel like butterflies and be romantic. But there's an element to love that is work. There is an element that is pure self-sacrifice without the desire to get anything back in return.

And if two people are doing that to each other: then you are loving and being loved at the same time. So, I think that the sheer amount of work that needs to go into keeping your family together and keeping a marriage together, is something that we're losing as a skill.

Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures

"I think that there's a misconception that love should always feel like butterflies and be romantic. But there's an element to love that is work. There is an element that is pure self-sacrifice without the desire to get anything back in return. And if two people are doing that to each other: then you are loving and being loved at the same time."

I know you yourself are married as well. When did you know that you were ready to put in that work to give and receive love? You know, where you knew that this was something you were fully capable of doing.

My dad didn't get married until he was quite a bit older. He was 40 when he got married. And my dad's my hero. So, I just assumed that, you don't get married to you're later in life. But then at the age of 19, I met this amazing girl who was 17, and we became friends. And before I knew it--I had fallen in love. And I was shocked by this because I always had in my head that being with someone for life is something that wasn't going to happen until later. I don't know, there was just something about her. But the moment I realized I was in love and couldn't do without the lady I'm now married to, was when I literally couldn't picture my life without her in it. And that was the moment beyond which I thought, 'Okay, I guess this is my forever person.' It was that revelation that made me feel brave enough to jump in.

That’s beautiful. And so what do you know now about love or family that you didn't know before?

What I know now about love and family-- I'll relate this to my kids. If you have more than one child, what I know about family and what I know about children is that they are all different. You can't apply all of the same parenting methods to one child as you do another. You have to get to know them. I think it's good to have core values, but you have to adapt to your child's needs. And I have three sons and a girl; each and every one of them are different and it has been imperative to respond to who they are as people as opposed to a blanket approach to all of them.

Last question before you go: at this point in your life, what are you most grateful for?

I am most grateful for my faith. You know, I'm a Christian and that has been a bedrock for me since I was 16. And it's been such a relief and a release to know that I am loved by God. That my salvation is secure in Christ and that in this life--I don't have to strive because I already have the greatest reward anyone could ever have: which is God's love. That's just something that releases me from so much of the things I think I would have been preoccupied with if I didn't have that revelation.

You can catch David in Don't Let Go, in theaters everywhere now. And be sure to keep up with him by following him on Instagram.

Featured image by Getty Images

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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