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.
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.