Perhaps his highest-profile role to date was as Martin Luther King Jr. in the American biographical drama film Selma (2014). He also took the lead role in A United Kingdom (2016) as well as playing the role of a chess coach in Queen of Katwe (2016). He has played supporting roles in the films Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Middle of Nowhere (2012), Lincoln (2012), and garnered praise for portraying Louis Gaines in The Butler (2013). On television, he played MI5 officer Danny Hunter on the British drama series Spooks (2002–04).
Oyelowo was born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents of Yoruba ethnicity. He was brought up as a Baptist. He grew up in Tooting Bec until he was six, when his family moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where his father Stephen worked for the national airline and mother for a railway company. David attended a "'military-style' boarding school'. They returned to London when Oyelowo was fourteen, settling in Islington.
While enrolled in theatre studies at City and Islington College, his teacher suggested that he become an actor. Oyelowo enrolled for a year in an art foundation course, at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). He finished his three-year training in 1998. He also spent time with the National Youth Theatre.
He began his stage career in 1999 when he was offered a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company playing roles in Ben Jonson's Volpone, as the title character in Oroonoko (which he also performed in the BBC radio adaptation) and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1999) alongside Guy Henry, Frances de la Tour and Alan Bates. However, he is best known for his next stage performance as King Henry VI in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2001 productions of Shakespeare's trilogy of plays about the king as a part of its season This England: The Histories. In a major landmark for colour-blind casting, Oyelowo was the first black actor to play an English king in a major production of Shakespeare, and although this casting choice was initially criticised by some in the media, Oyelowo's performance was critically acclaimed and later won the 2001 Ian Charleson Award for best performance by an actor under 30 in a classical play.
In 2005, he appeared in a production of Prometheus Bound, which was revived in New York City in 2007. In 2006, he made his directorial debut on a production of The White Devil, produced by Inservice, his theatre company in Brighton which is co-run with fellow Brighton-based actors Priyanga Burford, Israel Aduramo, Penelope Cobbuld, and his wife, Jessica. He played the title role in Othello in 2016 at the New York Theatre Workshop with Daniel Craig as Iago, directed by Sam Gold.
Oyelowo is best known for playing MI5 officer Danny Hunter on the British drama series Spooks (known in North America as MI-5) from 2002 to 2004. He had before that appeared in Tomorrow La Scala (2002), Maisie Raine (1998) and Brothers and Sisters (1998). Soon after the end of his time on Spooks Oyelowo made a cameo appearance in the Christmas special of As Time Goes By (2005). In 2006, he appeared in the television film Born Equal alongside Nikki Amuka-Bird as a couple fleeing persecution in Nigeria – they also both appeared in Shoot the Messenger (2006), and in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (2008) as a husband and wife. Other cameos have included Mayo (guest-starring on 30 April 2006) and the television film Sweet Nothing in My Ear (2008, as defence attorney Leonard Grisham), while he has played recurring or main characters on Five Days (2007) and The Passion (2008, as Joseph of Arimathea).
In December 2009, he played the leading role of Gilbert in the BBC TV adaptation of Andrea Levy's novel Small Island. In March 2010, he played the role of Keme Tobodo in the BBC's drama series Blood and Oil.
He starred in the HBO original film Nightingale (2014).
He appeared as Olaudah Equiano in Grace Unshackled – The Olaudah Equiano Story, a radio play adapting Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. This was first broadcast on BBC 7 on 8 April 2007, with his wife Jessica Oyelowo as Mrs. Equiano.
In 2007, Oyelowo was the reader for John le Carré's The Mission Song. AudioFile magazine stated: "Think of David Oyelowo as a single musician playing all the instruments in a symphony. That is essentially what he manages in this inspired performance of John le Carré's suspense novel.... Can it really have been only one man in the narrator's recording booth? This virtuoso performance makes that seem impossible." In 2015, he was selected to portray James Bond in Trigger Mortis, written by Anthony Horowitz.
As of 2014, he provides the voice of Imperial Security Bureau Agent Kallus on the animated series Star Wars Rebels.
In 2012, Oyelowo appeared in Middle of Nowhere. Writer-director Ava DuVernay had been a fan of his work and had considered asking him to take the role, however before she could, Oyelowo received the script coincidentally from a friend of a friend of DuVernay's who happened to be sitting next to him on the plane and was considering investing in the project. The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival to critical raves. That same year Oyelowo appeared in Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, which competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Oyelowo also stars in Five Nights in Maine, which was directed by Maris Curran. Oyelowo reunited with Daniels the following year in The Butler.
He worked with his Middle of Nowhere director Ava DuVernay again for Selma (2014), playing civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. The film, based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, had originally been set to be directed by Lee Daniels, but the project was dropped by Daniels so he could focus on The Butler.
In 2015, he starred in Captive where he also served as producer under his Yoruba Saxon Productions banner.
Oyelowo is slated to star with Lupita Nyong'o in Americanah, a film to be adapted from the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel. The story follows a pair of young Nigerian immigrants who face a lifetime of struggle while their relationship endures.
For his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Oyelowo received in 2014 the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Actor and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture. He received his first Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama.
Also in 2014, for his performance in Nightingale, he won the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actor in a Movie/Miniseries and was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film, NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special and a Satellite Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film.
Oyelowo was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to drama.
He is married to actress Jessica Oyelowo, with whom he has four children. They live in Los Angeles, California.
A devout Christian, Oyelowo has stated that he believes God called him to play Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Reflecting on his portrayal of King in the film Selma, Oyelowo has asserted that "I always knew that in order to play Dr. King, I had to have God flow through me because when you see Dr. King giving those speeches, you see that he is moving in his anointing."