It's been nearly 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a procession of protesters from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to secure the right to vote for black Americans who, despite the 15th Amendment, were denied that basic right. But in today's climate of racial unrest and protest, the civil rights movement is more relevant than ever. In some ways, the release of "Selma" couldn't be timelier.
The film, which opens in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., on Dec. 25 and across the country on Jan. 9, focuses on a three-month period in the life of King (played by David Oyelowo). Writer Paul Webb and Director Ava DuVernay decided to zero in what occurred in the titular city, rather than depict marches that King led in Birmingham, Memphis or Washington.
"Selma is a slice of his life that truly tells a lot about who he was. He was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things," says DuVernay. "I wanted to portray him as a man who got swept up in history, not a person who was reduced to four words, 'I have a dream.' Our main goal was to show him in all of his human complexity, unlock him from the statue and let him live and breathe and tell the story from that lens."
As the film begins, King is a Nobel Peace Prize honoree who declines to work for the Johnson administration to continue fighting for change on a grassroots level. That theme was crucial to DuVernay, whose father's family is from Hayneville, Alabama. "The film is about a community of people who came together about a cause of right, and fought for that in a nonviolent way." Echoes Oyelowo, "It wasn't just about King. It was about the movement as well."
It took eight years to get the movie to the screen, following a few false starts until the project coalesced with the help of Oprah Winfrey. Oyelowo played Winfrey's activist son in "The Butler" and gave her a copy of a film he had made with DuVernay called "Middle of Nowhere," expressing their mutual desire to make a movie about King. Intrigued, Winfrey contacted DuVernay and they hit it off immediately. Winfrey agreed with the director's slice-of-life approach and signed on as a producer. She also agreed to play the supporting role of Annie Lee Cooper, who is denied the right to register to vote — for the fifth time — and joins the protest march.
"Annie Lee Cooper represents my grandmother and aunts and great-aunts and all the women who would have wanted to have the courage to stand up for themselves," says Winfrey. "She had been humiliated time and time before, but she was willing to go down and try one more time. The Annie Lee Coopers of the world and others who aren't as well known as King were equally important in the courage that they demonstrated daily to stand up for themselves."
Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, center) struggles while being arrested during a protest in the film 'Selma.'
"Selma" features many historical figures, including President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), Malcolm X (David Thatch) and members of King's inner circle like future Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young (André Holland), civil rights lawyer Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce).
Ejogo — who like Oyelowo, Roth and Wilkinson is British — played Coretta King once before, in the 2001 TV movie "Boycott," about the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery. "This was a different take. She was a very different woman by this time. She's powerful and vulnerable and frustrated — I get to do much more than I got to do in 'Boycott,'" she says.
Oyelowo related to King as a man of justice, a Christian, and father of four, and the actor relied on the real Andrew Young as a source for deeper personal insights. "He talked to me about the prankster, the father, the man who was sometimes unsure." He studied King's speeches to get the rhythm right, and gained weight for the role, but he did not use any prosthetics. "If I can find this man's spirit, his soul, be truthful with the emotion, that's what will hit the audience," he thought. "It was his essence that inspired motivated and moved people to change." Oyelowo says that his prior roles — including "The Butler," as a Union soldier in "Lincoln," a preacher in "The Help," a fighter pilot in "Red Tails" — all "led me on my journey toward this."
"Selma" was shot in 32 days in many of the actual locations depicted on screen including the Capitol steps in Montgomery and the setting of the Bloody Sunday confrontation, Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. (It's named for a Confederate general turned Alabama senator who also happened to be a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.) "It was very emotional to shoot these scenes in these places,” says DuVernay, who recruited many seniors who were there at the time to play extras. "The spirit of what happened there was definitely in the air."
Director Ava DuVernay (center) takes a break behind the camera while filming a scene for 'Selma.'
Since they couldn't acquire intellectual property rights, which include King's actual speeches, the filmmakers made use of detailed reports from the FBI, which had King under close surveillance, and DuVernay wrote new speeches in King's style.
As for what King wore, costume designer Ruth E. Carter looked to photographs to replicate his suits. "King was always very sharp, always well done — everything was classic and stylish but in a very quiet way, and that went right down to his well-polished shoes," she says. "We found out that King liked to monogram so we monogrammed a lot of things as well." Carter did the same kind of photo research for each character, including Mrs. King. "Of course we needed to recreate the Chanel suits she wore as the first lady of civil rights, but we also had a chance to show her in pants at home in a different light."
DuVernay believes "this film is here for a reason right now. I hope that people leave the theater feeling activated in some way, motivated to investigate and be better citizens of the world. When you see how people stood up for each other and for what is right, it's moving and hopefully, encouraging."
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- Why the environmental movement owes a debt to Martin Luther King Jr.