Selma & It’s Seven Year Journey To The Silver Screen
Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls on the 19th, only ten days after the well-anticipated film “Selma” hits theatres, to tell the story of Dr. King’s march through 60’s Alabama. The film, which details King’s strategic political activism alongside his deep desire for equality, also comes on the coat tails of what can arguably be considered the millennial Selma: the Ferguson protests, Eric Garner’s death, and the plethora of black murders by policemen that have incited outrage in the African American community in just the past few months.
“Selma,” which has already been nominated for several Golden Globes, won an AFI Award and earned Black Reel, Critic’s Choice, and Image Award nominations, will be released on the 9th to an eager audience ready to see a gritty and honest homage to one of our generation’s greatest leaders. The
groundbreaking film, directed by Ava DuVernay, took only 32 days to shoot, maintaining the tension and urgency with which the events it depicts - the famously harrowing march from Selma to Montgomery. While the shoot seems short, the road to actual production began years ago.
David Oyelowo, the Oxford-born actor given the momentous responsibility of portraying King on screen, first read the "Selma" script in 2007. But the film juggled a changing team of producers, directors who came and went (including Steven Spielberg and Lee Daniels) and it didn’t settle into gear until Oyelowo brought the films final, lasting director on board in 2013 - Ava DuVernay, the first African American woman to win the director’s prize at Sundance Film Festival.
For her work in “Selma”, DuVernay again made history once again as the first African-American woman ever nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the motion picture directing category. And if the critical reception to the movie is any indication, she could once again make history with an Oscar nod next month and she would, at least in part, have Oyelowo to thank for it.
The two met on DuVernay’s 2012 feature, "Middle of Nowhere,” in which Oyelowo plays an incarcerated husband of the heroine protagonist.
“I had done ‘Middle of Nowhere’ with Ava,” Oyelowo says, “and just seized upon the fact that I had been blessed under the directorial gaze of a true seismic talent - with her ability as a writer, as a director. She got things out of me I didn't know were there. I always knew that that had to be the case in doing Selma.”
DuVernay didn’t just take over the directorial role - she and Oyelowo also helped each other refine the script to rediscover exactly what they wanted to say about Dr. King.
“The original script was more focused on Johnson, and King was more of a peripheral character and quite rightly she wanted to make a film about the man and the movement,” Oyelowo says. “So everyday we talked about how to find the man, how they formed the movement and how they came together as a brotherhood and sisterhood to make this thing happen.”
Oyelowo, who has spent the last seven years on board this project to different degrees, has always known he’d play the part of Dr. King, suggesting he felt the connection from God, and from his own spirit, to the role. Even before the film was underway, Oyelowo was playing the Reverend, as he describes a visit to Lee Daniels’ hotel room: "I heard God say to me, 'Don't have your bag on your shoulder but on your side, because that's how Dr. King would have it.'" Daniels later said he thought Dr. King himself had entered the hotel.
Even Oprah Winfrey, who came on as a producer and also has a role in the film, said “I could sense from David a level of humility and.. pure passion and desire to honor his calling."
But he didn’t simply ease into the role. Oyelowo embarked upon an independent study of sorts to truly understand the politician. He even studied unreleased, candid footage of King to prepare for the role.
"When Dr. King was being interviewed by the press, there was a certain demeanor, a dignified presence, he felt the need to project," said Oyelowo. "But with this, he was just there, not putting on any of that — eating fried chicken, belching, laughing with his friends, being the prankster, the guy's guy. And that was huge for me. It was finally a chance to see the man behind the iconography."
This in-depth portrayal, however, doesn’t mean the film delves into all corners of King’s life. As a matter of fact, the actor applauds the decision to specifically focus on three months of the march in the film instead of taking on a wider range.
“What you don’t want to do with a life as expansive as Dr. King’s is to try and tell the whole life within two hours,” he said. “You’ll never have a satisfying cinematic experience. You’re certainly never going to scratch the surface of the man. So what I think was very clever of focusing in on those three months is that it was a very traumatic time for him. It was a very traumatic time for the country.”
The march, which took place in the segregated streets of 1965 Alabama, was not only hugely important in it’s time - it’s credited as one of the forces behind the passing of the Voting Rights Act - but in a time when protests are currently flooding cities across America, it’s a film that is perfectly appropriate for the present undercurrent of racial tension.
"We wrapped the second of July, and Michael Brown was killed on the ninth of August," Oyelowo said. "I'm at one screening and I'm standing there 30 minutes after the verdict that Darren Wilson wasn't going to be indicted in Ferguson. People watching this film think we made it after Ferguson.
“King was cut down because they knew what impact his message would have and how it would completely change this country, and here we are with this movie able to talk his strategy of love in the face of hate."
Director DuVernay feels her film came at the perfect time, too.
“This piece of art is meeting this cultural moment,” DuVernay says. “There’s so much going on, people are taking to the streets. Two days ago, we could hear marches right downstairs here in New York City, walking right by our hotel, marching, amplifying their voices. And so the reception has been beautiful in terms of the filmmaking, which is a relief to me.”
DuVernay also gave a nod to Ferguson within the film, as one of the songs from the soundtrack, “Glory” references the event.
While there have been many movies made surrounding the Civil Rights Era, “Selma” is unique in that it is the first to star Martin Luther King Jr. This meant, for DeVernay and Oyelowo, a special amount of personalization had to go into helming the character that acted as both a political leader and a compassionate, burdened man.
"What's this guy like at home with his wife and kids?" Oyelowo said. "He's not talking in a vibrato about taking out the trash. Where are his doubts, his guilt, his need to walk away?"
And Oyelowo seems to have envisioned King’s demons perfectly, as Congressman John Lewis, one of the Big Six leaders who played an important role in the Selma march and King’s campaign, came to the film’s set and watched him preach as Dr. King.
"When they stopped filming, I walked up to David and hugged him, and we both started crying," Lewis said. "Everyone around us thought we lost our minds."
That is what “Selma” comes down to, DuVernay says, emphasizing the importance of showing the political leader in an authentic light, to give an honest impression of who the man really was.
“We were really trying to deconstruct the mythology of King and the iconography of a leader,” DuVernay said. “We already know that he's a great orator. I'm interested in showing what we don't know, including how he was with his wife, or that he liked to have a Newport [cigarette] now and then, or joke with his friends. I'm always trying to build a man instead of a statue.”
But with any movie about a historical figure, there will always be critique surrounding exaggeration and misinformation, and some have expressed disappointment in the film’s misrepresentation of the relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and King. But DuVernay says the important beats of the film - particularly the violence - are very real, including the punch to the face King received when he first approached the city of Selma.
“That's real,” she says. “He was testing whether Selma would be a good place to stage this drama when a guy from the White Citizens' Council hit him right in the face. I stayed as close to the truth of all that as possible. The sheriffs really did use whips and horses on that bridge on Bloody Sunday. They really followed Jimmy Lee Jackson into that cafe and shot him. These people lived in a terrorist state, where anything could blow up or they could be randomly assaulted, humiliated or murdered.
“I didn't want a sugarcoated story that made [Dr. King] a saint, and at the same time, I also didn't want to front-load it with antihero overcorrection. You see movies that do that, that go for this flaw or that flaw, and it's really the low hanging fruit."
Oyelowo agrees, having seen the evolution of the film firsthand.
"When we first started, we were doing the movie as a celebration of what [King] had achieved," Oyelowo said. "But ... the conversation around the film has been shifting. In the same way that there needed to be voting reform, there is now need for police reform."
At it’s finest, Oyelowo hopes “Selma” can directly impact the direction behind Ferguson activism.
“There’s an argument that if the two thirds or more of blacks in Ferguson had exercised their right to vote that there may be some different situations right now,” Oyelowo points out. “They maybe wouldn't have five out of the six politicians in the city being white and have such a disproportionately large white police force, let alone how that may have impacted the jury in the case. These are freedoms that have been won that are not being fully exercised and embraced - and we only have ourselves to blame for that. That’s where I believe there’s a big mistake of not knowing our history and being empowered by our history is in its truism; hopefully this film will help certain events like that.”
The film is also relevant in that it directly expands upon the idea of nonviolence vs. violent progress - an issue that has greatly impacted the Ferguson debates - by showing King’s darker hours, and dissecting King’s guilt at the people who were hurt during his campaigns. Oyelowo says this plays a major role in his progression as not only a leader, but as a God-fearing human.
“A lot of books you read or documentaries you watch don't really touch on that. I mostly found out talking to people, and reading between the lines - the degree of guilt he felt in relation to those who were harmed and killed during his campaign.
“We didn't want to make a film about legacy or historical personalities, but flesh and blood human beings who were in the heat of this thing.”
“I think people don’t really understand how much of a weight was on his shoulders,” DuVernay says. “In terms of the guilt he felt when people were harmed or killed. That was something that weighed heavily upon him.”
Because of Dr. King’s illustrious strategic prowess, that was a particularly important factor for both Oyelowo and DuVernay to get right.
“That is something that Ava and I felt very keen to portray,” Oyelowo says. “When you see the film, you’ll see that strategy is one of the revelatory things that we show in the film. We show you how Selma was hand picked, how Jim Clark was hand picked, and how making sure the press were present on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His intelligence, his strategy, and not just his, but the group around him, was respected enough to take what they had to say and implement it as he saw fit.”
DuVernay says there was something very interesting in Selma in particular, out of all the experiences in Reverend King’s life she could have chosen to turn into a film.
“His life is very episodic.” DuVernay says. “You can do a whole film about Montgomery, you can do a whole film about the March on Washington...Memphis... Birmingham and the church bombings. There’s something about Selma that really captured me because he was at the height of his power at that point.
“He had made the I Have a Dream speech, he had just won the Nobel Prize, he was kind of on top of the world; and he could have chosen to do a lot of things. He could have chose to go into the Lyndon Johnson White House (there was an offer there.) He could have taken a book deal and kind of gotten cozy, but he went back onto the streets and he continued to organize and lead this movement. I think that is something that really captured my imagination. That’s what Selma really exemplifies.”
But even with a sparkling cast and eagerly talented director, all films have their obstacles - and for “Selma,” it was money.
“The logistics of putting together a film on that scale in such a small amount of time,” DuVernay recalls, “I know it sounds ridiculous to say $20 million is a small amount of money but for this kind of film—an historical drama, with speeches and marches and teargas and firearms, horses and a huge staff and period clothing and production design—it goes fast. And just trying to live up to Martin Luther King—the weight of that was there. Oprah always said, ‘you have to step into your moment when it presents itself,’ and so I tried my best to do that.”
“Selma” promises to wow audiences - as their most important critics, King’s family, have already given their stamp of approval.
“I just saw Martin Luther King III in New York, and we had the pleasure of being with both him and his sister Bernice at Mrs. Winfrey’s house last weekend,” DuVernay says. “And they just said such wonderful things - worth more than any award that we can hope for. Things like David’s performance is the best that they’ve seen—that they love the way their mother was portrayed, as a strong dignified leader that she was.
“That makes me feel very happy.”
Selma hits theaters on January 9th, 2015.