See How David Oyelowo Displays Authentic Faith in “Captive”

See How David Oyelowo Displays Authentic Faith in “Captive”

David Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

David Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

Were it not for the superb acting of David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, the new film “Captive” could pass for an ordinary television crime drama. But it’s not ordinary. Not only are the acting, writing, and production above average for the faith genre, but the film is based on the remarkable true story of Ashley Smith, a young woman who talked her kidnapper into letting her go and turning himself in to police by reading to him from the Rev. Rick Warren’s international best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life.”

After seeing Oyelowo’s magisterial portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma,” one might wonder why he would co-star in a small film like this. Surely bigger opportunities had come knocking. “Captive” was filmed before “Selma,” Oyelowo told Urban Faith, but he would have done it anyway, because his motivation for telling both stories is the same.

“Even though I’m playing antithetical characters, Dr. King and then Brian Nichols in ‘Captive,’ both films hint at the fact that light shines brightest in the dark,” said Oyelowo.

Life-affirming stories like these are some of the kinds of stories he gravitates toward, he said. “Nightingale,” a one-man, 83-minute HBO film that premiered this spring, is loosely based on the true story of a mentally unstable veteran who murders his mother and lives with her body in their home while he tries, unsuccessfully, to reunite with a fellow soldier.

Oyelowo humanizes this sad character and illuminates difficult subject matter, just as he does in the other two films.

“My faith enables me to have a compassion that I may otherwise not have had in relation to the dark side of who we all are as people,” said Oyelowo, a devout Christian. “What makes us human is the fact that we are never just one thing. There is always a battle between the soul and the spirit. There is always a battle for ground between the darkness and the light within us.”

All three characters are “extreme examples of either the dark or the light, but they all have the complexity of what it is to be a human being within them,” he said. “They all have weaknesses and strengths, and those are what’s come to the fore predominantly for better or for the worst at any given time.”

Realistic portrayals of the human experience are what make these films resonate with audiences, Oyelowo said. “Even if you are not Dr. King or you are not Brian Nichols … there’s something to be gleaned from a human perspective in all those characters.”

Indeed. One reason “Captive” succeeds where other faith-based films fail is that both its villain and its heroine, Ashley Smith, are multifaceted. Smith, a young, widowed methamphetamine addict, had lost custody of her daughter and had once thrown away the book that would eventually save her life, and perhaps other lives as well.

In a recent interview with the Rev. Rick Warren, Smith said, “The only thing I did in my apartment that night was give God my brokenness. … When I finally gave it to him, he began to work and show off in my life. … It’s never too late to turn your life around. It’s never too late to let God work.”

Ten years after her captivity, Smith is sober, remarried, and has regained custody of her daughter. “Today I choose to walk with [God] and let him carry my burden,” she said.

Kate Mara plays Ashley Smith in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

Kate Mara plays Ashley Smith in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

Like millions of other people, Oyelowo has read “The Purpose Driven Life.” He said the book inspired him to believe that God had a bigger plan for him than he could have imagined.  “As a person who is pretty ambitious and has big hopes and dreams for myself, it was kind of a big revelation for me. But when I then encountered this story, it sort of struck me that never was that truth that is expressed in the book truer than for Ashley Smith.”

Oyelowo said Smith told him she initially felt her kidnapping by a man who had murdered four other people before taking her captive was God’s way of saying to her, “You’ve messed up so much, you deserve death.” She never could have envisioned all that would come of her willingness to surrender to Him in that moment.

That God brought good from the situation does not erase the fact that four people lost their lives—among them, a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and a federal agent. The film is dedicated to those victims. Oyelowo doesn’t know if Nichols has seen it, but he said Nichols’ mother has and is “incredibly complimentary.” For a man who sees the potential for good and evil in all of us, her approval is a “relief.”

Unlike a lot of faith-based films, “Captive” does not feel like it is selling a product, even though passages from “The Purpose Driven Life” are read throughout. Perhaps this is only because, as a viewer, I knew this unlikely miracle actually happened.

Oyelowo said the filmmakers’ goal was simply to tell a good story.

“If your movie is agenda-ridden, whether it’s a horror movie or an action movie, whatever the kind of movie it is … it’s not good storytelling. Good storytelling is presenting things to the audience that enable them to project themselves into the situation and make decisions with the character as they’re going along,” said Oyelowo.

“Where I think films around faith have failed and the reason why they only appeal to a very niche and specific audience is because they lack complexity. They lack a degree of truthfulness in a sense. Anyone who has read the Bible will see that it’s an R-rated book, that it is a book full of darkness, full of complexity, full of the gray areas of life,” he said.

“What the Bible doesn’t do is glorify or glamorize those darknesses. It very much juxtaposes them with a possibility of light, but in a way that shows things in all their complexity–whether it’s David, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, or Jesus himself. You see the challenges these people faced and the fact that it wasn’t always pretty and it didn’t always have a happy ending. Moses didn’t get to go into the Promised Land. These are the things that I try to bring to storytelling, because I just see them to be the truth of what it is to be a human being on planet earth.”

This approach is why “Captive” is a cut above, and why we’ll keep watching David Oyelowo for many years to come.

Next up for the actor are “Five Nights in Maine,” a story about grief, with Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez (it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this month) and “A United Kingdom” with Rosamund Pike, based on the true story of Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana, whose interracial marriage caused an international stir in the late 1940s.

Christine A. Scheller is an Urban Faith editor-at-large. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC.


Response to Kony 2012 Is Mixed

Response to Kony 2012 Is Mixed

Kony 2012 Is Propaganda

For 45 years, Ugandan leader Joseph Kony “has been killing and raping and maiming often with children as the targets.” This is how NPR leads into an interview about what it calls a “propaganda” video that, at last count, boasted more than 57 million views on YouTube.

Kony 2012 was produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children to bring awareness to the horrors Kony has orchestrated, but as quickly as the video went viral it drew an onslaught of criticism from journalists and other activists.

In his interview with NPR, freelance reporter Michael Wilkerson said Kony’s band of rebels, the Lord’s Resistance Army, had been forced out of Uganda by its military in 2006 and there hasn’t been a war in the region highlighted in the film since.

“Only 15 minutes into this 30-minute film is it mentioned that the LRA left northern Uganda, and they don’t mention the year, and it’s only a few second in the 30-minute video. So it’s easy to understand why people who are directed by celebrities or whatever might misunderstand this,” said Wilkerson.

Reuters media critic Jack Shafer also described the video as “propaganda,” saying the approach “has backfired.”

“Every project and video the group now launches will be analyzed and criticized to the nth degree, and I can guarantee that enterprising reporters are excavating the group’s history looking for dirt,” said Shafer. Even so, he concluded that “like the 700 Club or the March of Dimes,” Invisible Children  “is primarily a fundraising group” that cherishes today’s criticisms because “for every  person who ever tuned out the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon  because he couldn’t endure the host’s mawkishness, another five tuned in  because they couldn’t miss it.”

Africans Aren’t Voiceless or Hopeless

The critiques that perhaps matter most are those coming from Africans.

Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire uploaded her own video to YouTube, in which she highlighted African successes in solving the continents’ problems, and said, “If you’re showing me as voiceless, hopeless, you should not be telling my story.” (View her commentary below.)

At, Angelo Izama said, “To call the campaign a misrepresentation is something of an understatement. While it draws attention to the fact that Kony, indicted  for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, is still on  the loose, its portrayal of his alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era. … Six years ago children in Gulu would have feared being forcibly conscripted into the LRA, but today the real invisible children are those suffering from ‘Nodding Disease’ – an incurable neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.”

Message Is Exactly What We Need

The Chicago Sun-Times rounded up other critical Ugandan opinions, but also reported that a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court told The Associated Press that “the attention Invisible Children has raised is ‘incredible, exactly what we need’” and talked to a researcher on Uganda for Human Rights Watch who said the video “has helped draw attention to an issue the rights group has long been working on” and

A Savvy, Effective Use of Social Media

At The Wrap, Sharon Waxman said, “We are learning how the power of these technology-era tools can be world-changing in their speed and reach. … Invisible Children has been extremely savvy and organized in its use of social media, grabbing the power of the Internet by the tail to force its agenda onto the public stage.” She also said the video launch “targeted high-profile, highly social-networked celebrities to spread the word, and had a website that didn’t crash when their strategy worked.”

He Can’t Hide Now

Among those celebrities is the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. This morning, Warren linked to Invisible Children’s website in a tweet that said, “Help me end #Kony #LRA child cult army. I’ve been there fighting him since 92. He can’t hide now!”

I first caught wind of the story on Wednesday when Christianity Today’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey noted the flip-flopping responses of a couple Christian bloggers to the video.

Today Reuters reported that Uganda has said it will “catch Joseph Kony dead or alive.”

What do you think?

Is Kony 2012 propaganda, effective social action, or a bit of both?

It’s Vickie Winans Time

 It's Vickie Winans Time for urban faithHere’s this week’s rundown of pop-culture stories. Lots to talk about, so let’s get started.

BET Gives Us “A Time” to Let Loose

Even though comedians like Katt Williams, Chris Rock, and Cedric the Entertainer keep us laughing on their popular HBO or Comedy Central stand-up specials, we’re hungry for some clean comedy we can watch with the whole family. Thankfully Vickie Winans, who has long been a successful gospel music artist with No. 1 hits like “As Long As I Got King Jesus” and “The Rainbow,” is bringing family-friendly comedy to BET with her new show, A Time to Laugh. Set to debut in January 2010, the show has already begun filming a scheduled 30 episodes. BET, which has found recent success with gospel-influenced programming such as the hit show Sunday Best, describes A Time to Laugh as gospel stand-up with dynamic dancers, musical artists, and fast-paced Bible story improv from a fresh urban contemporary perspective.

It certainly will be good to see more of Vickie Winans. After an extended absence from the music scene following the death of her mother, Mattie Bowman, and a difficult exit from the Verity Records roster, earlier this month Winans released How I Got Over, her first album in three years (see video for the first single below). We’re not sure yet whether A Time to Laugh is exactly what we had in mind when we said we wanted “Christian comedy,” but we’re still looking forward to seeing what Sister Winans has to offer on BET.

‘Act Like a Lady’ on the Big Screen?

When Steve Harvey released his dating book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, it seemed like the world couldn’t stop talking about it. Tyra Banks invited him on her daytime talk show to share his relationship revelations, and Oprah brought him on her show twice, including an appearance before an all-female audience where he counseled various women on the ways of love. UrbanFaith even offered its more skeptical assessment. With insight into the male psyche like “Men are driven by who they are, what they do, and how much they make” and hints on what men want (Harvey claims it is “support, love and ‘The Cookie'”) the comedian-turned-pop-relationship-expert found instant success with his book. Now BV Newswire reports that filmmaker Will Packer (This Christmas and Obsessed) is adapting the book into a full-length film. It’s too early to even begin discussing the plot, but we hope they’ll turn it into a documentary. Steve Harvey is so hysterically funny, and with the number of women at their wits end as to what men want, it would be great to see him set loose, training a group of women to think like men.

‘Idol’ After Paula

Now that Paula Abdul is officially stepping down as a judge on American Idol, we’re kind of looking forward to what’s in store for the new season of the show. Without Paula’s positive and, let’s be honest, generally unintelligible commentary, how will the show survive? We doubt she’ll be easily replaced by just another “nice female” voice, as fans might be suspect of a judge who’s already been pigeon-holed into the canned role of good cop. On the other hand, a stronger, more critical voice may feel too harsh against the biting words of Simon Cowell and the “yo’ dawg” musical analysis of Randy Jackson.

Until Fox can find a permanent replacement for Abdul, they’re temporarily filling her chair with a slew of celebrity guests like Katy Perry, Victoria Beckham, and even a rumored appearance by new Real Atlanta housewife and singer Kandi Burruss.

One thing we know for sure is that the American Idol formula for success has been compromised. If the dispute was really over money, Fox may regret failing to move some of Ryan Seacrest’s $45 million over to Abdul, if only to keep the show interesting.

Life After ‘Purpose’

It may be no surprise to you that Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 25 million copies, making it by Publishers Weekly‘s count the best-selling hardback book in American History. Since its debut in 2002, it has been a must-read for a global audience of believers and non-believers alike when trying to make sense of their lives and come to terms with their faith.

Now Warren is ready to piggyback on nearly a decade of success with plans to release a new book, just in time for the 30th Anniversary of his Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. In a recent video to his church members, he explained, “I’m in book writing mode right now. I’ve gone back into hibernation to write the follow up to Purpose Driven Life now, eight years later. It’s going to be called The Hope of the World, and my plan is to release that on Easter Sunday.”

The new book is set to focus on the church and its role in contemporary culture, elevating the purpose-driven “what do I do with my life?” philosophy to a broader “how do I engage with the culture around me?” level. Warren, who also launched the Purpose Driven Connection magazine with the Readers Digest Association in early 2009, has increasingly been practicing what he preaches in terms of engaging culture. Last winter, he had a highly publicized conflict and eventual reconciliation with musician Melissa Etheridge. The two made headlines when Etheridge, known for being outspoken about gay rights, criticized the President Barack Obama for including Warren in his Inauguration plans, despite his criticism of California’s Proposition 8. The singer later apologized for her negative reaction to Warren’s role in the ceremony, saying her assumptions about the megachurch pastor’s character and prejudices toward Christians were reinforcing the exact type of behavior the homosexual community is trying to undo.

That’s it for this installment of Pop & Circumstance. Until next time, please leave your comments below and let us know what pop-culture stories you’re most fascinated by this week.

Prayers and Faith at the Inauguration

Prayers and Faith at the InaugurationLots of interesting reviews out there of President Obama’s inaugural address yesterday. Most claim that it didn’t rise to the level of Obama’s most soaring speeches, but they agree that it did strike the appropriate tone for the occasion and the challenges that lie ahead for our nation.

Some of the most fascinating post-Inauguration analysis, however, is the play-by-play on the various Inauguration prayers and religious events.