Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Director: Ava DuVernay
Genre: Biopic, Drama, History
Running Time: 128 minutes
Synopsis: Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson and the civil rights marches that changed America.
Release Date: February 12th, 2015
The Dream of Voting Rights
On March 7, 1965, Americans watching Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg on TV were stunned as the news cut in with harrowing images of violence in the here-and-now at home. In Selma, Alabama, local and state troopers had just assaulted marchers seeking the equal right to vote for all Americans, resulting in scores of injuries and a portrait of 20th Century repression that shamed and angered many. It would become a watershed moment that thrust a century-long fight towards accelerated victory.
The right to vote was first guaranteed to black Americans (or at least black males) in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment; but for nearly 100 years after, and for decades after suffrage, that right was systematically obstructed in many places across the nation. (Even now, voting rights remain contentious with portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 having been struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and new voter ID laws sparking heated debate over the impact on voter participation.)
By the early 1960s, things were particularly bad in portions of the South – especially in Alabama, which had become a flashpoint for civil rights battles since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery. Throughout the state, black citizens applying to vote were repeatedly blocked by local registrars – known to give impromptu literacy and civics tests featuring absurdly difficult questions designed to fail all takers. Furthermore, widespread poll taxes discouraged the poor and penalized those who chose to vote even if they succeeded in getting registered. By 1965, there were counties in Alabama where not a single black person had voted in any election for the previous 50 years.
In Selma – where only 130 of 15,000 black citizens were registered – citizens began to fight back. The national civil rights group, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (known as SNCC or 'snick"), started organizing in the area in 1963, but faced considerable resistance, particularly from segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark who utiliaed local posses to intimidate, arrest and flat-out beat up those engaged in voter drives. In January of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. – the young pastor who was becoming the nation's most influential moral voice for nonviolent struggle against racism - along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a group of ministers leading nonviolent boycotts, marches and sit-ins to protest segregation across the South) arrived in Selma to assist their growing movement.
In the preceding two years, Dr. King had given his momentous 'I Have a Dream" speech in Washington D.C., just months before four innocent little girls were murdered in a Birmingham, Alabama church bombed in an act of white supremacist terrorism. Only a few months before arriving in Selma, King had won the Nobel Peace Prize and then been named Man of the Year by Time Magazine, which declared him 'the American Gandhi."
As soon as Dr. King arrived in Selma, tension was mounting from every angle. On the ground, demonstrators faced vicious treatment, and knew lives were on the line. In the White House, President Johnson was closely watching what he feared could quickly become a tinderbox. And for King, the expectations were enormous because this had all the makings of a defining moment – one in which all the political maneuvering, negotiating and nonviolent protesting he had been advocating for years might truly have a shot at accomplishing something profound, if only the people could be kept safe from harm.
Inspired by the history, British producer Christian Colson (Slumdog Millionaire), commissioned a screenplay from Paul Webb and joined forces with Pathé to fund the development and production. Colson teamed up with Brad Pitt's company, Plan B Entertainment and producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Twelve Years a Slave) to further develop the script and to find the right director – a process that took almost eight years.
'We'd been interested for a long time in Dr. King's legacy and the legacy of civil rights not just as the work of one man but as a collective movement - and we lobbied very intensely to become involved back in 2007," recalls Jeremy Kleiner. 'The fact that these events had never been dramatized in cinema was humbling … but also exciting. We always believed in this story as not just history but a living history that continues to have present-day meaning."
It was the convergence of three people who finally turned the oft talked-about project into reality: Ava DuVernay, an up-and-coming director who won the Best Director Award at Sundance with her microbudget film Middle of Nowhere; actor David Oyelowo, who felt a call to play Dr. King and had tracked the project for years; and Oprah Winfrey, whose passionate support brought things to fruition.
'There were any number of approaches you could take to this material," says Dede Gardner, 'but what set this group apart was that they really wanted to encompass the totality of the civil rights movement, with Dr. King at the helm but not at all alone. He was supported by and sharing these experiences with a group of people – and it was important to show there were also fractures in this group. When the stakes are life and death, as they were in Selma, people are willing to go down fighting for what they believe is the right approach. Movements are born of these important debates.
You need that conversation and analysis to make something happen. So this group brought a real focus on that, and also on the fact that the movement involved women and was not just the domain of men. There was also a drive to look at King as a genuine human being with doubts and anguish and dread as well as conviction, faith and command."
When David Oyelowo worked with Ava DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere he intuitively felt Ava DuVernay was the director who could give the material the fresh insight for which he'd always hoped. 'I really mean it when I say this woman is a genius," he says. 'Her ability with story, just the way she is able to get under the skin of who we are as human beings, is so powerful. And the fact that her family is from Lowndes County, Alabama, literally from the country between Selma and Montgomery, means this history is in her DNA. You can feel that."
For David Oyelowo, the fact that Ava DuVernay is a woman was another reason to champion her. 'Even within the civil rights movement women were marginalized. They were just as talented, just as fervent about the injustices of the day, they sacrificed just as much if not more, but they haven't been celebrated as heroes. So for me, for a black woman to be at the helm of this story felt absolutely right."
Around the time that David Oyelowo encountered Ava DuVernay, he also got to know Oprah Winfrey while the two were starring together in Lee Daniels' The Butler, and he told her of his dream of playing Dr. King. 'I had recorded myself doing the -Mountaintop' speech, and I showed it to her just to see what she thought, and from that moment on she was obsessed," he remembers. 'She said -we need to figure this out.' Then one day I called her and said let's turn this energy into something real - do you want to join us on this? She said I'll do whatever I need to do. And that was rocket fuel. From that moment on, things geared up."
Oprah Winfrey ultimately could not resist the opportunity to help Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo tell this story, especially now. 'The reason I said yes to this movie is because I think you cannot know where you're going as a people unless you know where you've been," Oprah Winfrey says. 'That adage that says we stand on the shoulders of some mighty folk is something I've lived my whole life. I've carried the voices of Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, and also the many thousands who marched and prayed and believed and suffered, hoping that there would be a better day – those who never imagined we could have the life that we now do have, with the ability for many to rise to your greatest self."
She goes on: 'The thing that's really most exciting to me is that Selma is not just about Martin Luther King, but very much about all the people who made his three months in Selma possible. It's a people's story. King was able to do what he did because he had these people behind him. There was no one else like him obviously, and he was an amazingly charismatic, spiritually driven, motivated leader, but he still couldn't have achieved these things without the people who stood beside him."
The producing team was ecstatic to have Oprah Winfrey join the team. 'It's a treat to work with her," says Gardner. 'She can seem otherworldly from afar, but when you meet her, she's a consummate human being, a supportive person, a realistic person and a genuine partner. She was with us the whole way reviewing casting tapes, watching dailies, talking about cuts and weighed in on every aspect of the production. It's obviously a story that she's personally very passionate about and you can feel that. And then to have her grace the film with her performance as Annie Lee Cooper was the icing on the cake."
After spending time with Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey came away ready to have her back through the challenges of the production. 'I've never seen anyone with the kind of intense, passionate, willful force, and clear direction Ava DuVernay has. On set, she creates a calm space where you can feel everybody working at their highest level while creating that sense of synergy with each other. The whole project took on her energy."
That energy, born of a commitment to a higher legacy, felt like something unusual in dramatic filmmaking to many of the cast and crew. Summarises David Oyelowo: 'With this film I can genuinely say that there was an overriding feeling of service. All of us, cast and crew were there asking each day: how can we serve this incredible community who put their lives on the line for the privileges we now enjoy?"
Though she would be making her first big-budget feature film Ava DuVernay approached Selma with the ambition and vision of a director who felt a magnetic pull to tell this story deep down in her bones.
For Ava DuVernay, the events of 1965 literally hit home because her family hails from Alabama, and she spent summers there as a young girl while growing up in Compton. 'My father is from a small town called Hayneville in between Selma and Montgomery," the director explains. 'That's part of why this story captured me. Previously, I'd been primarily interested in contemporary images of people of color, but when this story set in the past came into my life, it really took over my imagination in a very unexpected way. And I'm happy it did. It honors the people of Selma, but it also represents the struggle of people everywhere to vote."
Selma underlined for Ava DuVernay how the mere ability to vote can change and uplift communities. 'The process that we call justice in this country is directly connected to the right to vote," she observes. 'We often take for granted what voting enables us to do – but one of those things is to sit on a jury. So if you are black in 1960s Alabama and intimidated to the point that you can't even register to vote, that means that you can never sit on a jury to gain justice for yourself or for others like you. The degree to which the right to vote affects the everyday life of people was something I'd never fully processed until I got into the research for Selma."
Intensive research was a necessity, yet Ava DuVernay was searching for more than facts. She wanted to dig into the human center of the story. Her approach was distinctive: going for a restrained realism that allows the audience to really see the hidden relationships and emotions on the underside of the events.
The film would dig deep into the hearts of, and the community forged by, all the men and women involved. Structured around FBI surveillance reports – the FBI followed Dr. King's every move, resulting in a 17,000 page file that traced both the banal and decisive moments of his life - the final screenplay tracked events from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing through the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965. It also took a kaleidoscopic view, moving through every layer of society, from the Presidency to Selma housekeepers, recognising all as connected.
This breadth left the final screenplay open to a multiplicity of interpretations, which excited the filmmakers. 'You could read Selma as a story about how governments can sometimes be pushed to act in moral ways. Or it could be said it's a story about protest as a fact of life that is tough and unglamorous," says Kleiner. 'It might be an ode to the brilliant strategies and tactics of this group of civil rights leaders. Or it could be a story about the struggle to overcome the enduring doctrine of white supremacy. It's complex and it doesn't have one meaning – it's a story that could feel relevant at any point in history."
Ava DuVernay says she tried to hew to the essence of the events as people who were there remember them. 'My approach was to tell the truth as best we could, because the actual facts of what happened, the actual people who were there, are more fascinating than anything you could make up," the director says. 'There are no composite characters in this film. Everyone you see in this film really lived, really struggled, really did these things. They are so compelling that there was no reason to make anything up. I leaned into the idea that my role was literally just to be a teller of their tale. I felt I was a translator just trying to get into the inner being of these men and women."
At the same time, she sought a visceral immediacy to connect with today's audiences. 'Sometimes you can get dragged down by a historical drama, but this story is also contemporary. It's of now. It's really about something universal that applies to people of different genders, races and religions. We've all been made to feel barriers at some time – and this is a film about people triumphing over barriers."
Having multiple civil rights leaders from that time – including Congressman John Lewis and Ambassador Andrew Young - participate was a source of inspiration. 'Just to stand next to people who were so heroic was moving," she recalls. 'When you see John Lewis walk in and ask for a Coke, you think, -wow, he is just a regular man who did this extraordinary thing.' And that was very important, because the more you realise these heroes were just like us the more you see how amazing what they did was. If you hold them at a historical distance, you can't really feel that. But when you bring them closer, as we try to do in the film, that is when you see the greatness of what they accomplished."
On set, Ava DuVernay created a familial atmosphere in which to explore the characters. She says the ambience is important. 'I believe we should not only try to create something beautiful on film but also have a beautiful experience while we make it," she says. 'I always said that when I made my own films that I would try to create a set I would have liked to be on, as a crew member or actor, where there are no barriers between people, no hierarchies. It seemed especially important on this film, because we are telling a story about community and unity. That was the goal and people really embraced it, and I think it shows in the work."
Ava DuVernay was also strengthened by Oprah Winfrey's belief in her. 'This woman is so consistently true to herself. She is generous, wise, funny, focused, smart, curious – and after all she's done, she is still excited by new things. As an actress I found her to be very open and just ready to attack the material with vitality and vigor. And as a producer, she rolled up her sleeves, did really deep work on this project and it was extraordinary."
The cast in turn was bolstered by Ava DuVernay's determination and clarity. 'Ava DuVernay is a phenomenon. She had an incredibly specific and strong vision that she stayed true to everyday - and yet she did all of this while remaining creatively open as a vessel and willing to hear ideas," says Carmen Ejogo. 'This was such an epic undertaking, yet Ava DuVernay always remained true to her independent spirit and her own aesthetic."
Sums up producer Dede Gardner: 'Ava's mind and heart are such that she can be indie- minded when the circumstances call for it and she can be global-minded if that's what the task requires. She's an artist who ebbs and flows and bends and expands – and that elasticity was evident from the beginning. She had such personal stakes in telling this story – she felt it as an imperative and when the stakes are that high, it can create something universally big."
A Human King
The Martin Luther King, Jr. seen in Selma is a complex man approaching not only the greatest, and potentially most dangerous, political battle of his life but also a personal crossroads. He's made mistakes, he's weary of battle, he's watched his family suffer for too long – and all of this weighs on him as he tries to hold fast to his principles in the midst of the frightening violence and repression rising in Alabama.
Dr. King carries the kind of legend that has daunted many an actor, but David Oyelowo had felt an affinity towards him for years that drove him to seek this part. He might not at first seem an obvious choice. David Oyelowo was born in Oxford, England and raised in England and Nigeria before moving to the U.S. in 2007. But he says the minute he read Paul Webb's screenplay in that same year, he knew he would do anything he could to play Dr. King. 'This role has been a seven year journey for me," he notes. 'But because of having all that time I have also had the chance to truly steep myself in getting to know all that I can about Dr. King, the movement and American history as a result."
The more David Oyelowo learned about Dr. King, the more he was determined to play him. He felt being British only gave him the distance necessary to see past the idealistic dreamer children know from history lessons, and go much deeper into his philosophy, faith and struggles. 'I hadn't grown up with Martin Luther King as a deified figure, so I felt a freedom to come at him more as just a man, more as a fully realised character," he says. 'Still, my admiration for him only grew enormously the more I learned."
David Oyelowo underwent a physical transformation for the role, packing on pounds and razoring his hair to match King's familiar silhouette. But more so, he immersed himself in King's expressiveness and in the art of charismatic speech-making at which Dr. King was one of the world's acknowledged masters. 'I felt I could not do these speeches out of my own energy or whatever talent I have as an actor. I had to do as King had done and really ride the wave of a certain energy," he describes. 'I had to fully go there."
At the same time, David Oyelowo knew he had to find his own voice and not merely echo King's instantly recognisable timbre. 'It was a long process, but one of the things you can't afford to do when you are playing a character like this is to fall into imitation or caricature. At the end of the day what people gravitate towards on the screen is a human being, not a statue. So I felt my job was to the find the blood and guts of this man – the heroism but also the weaknesses, the foibles. I wanted to find his voice and his physicality, but if people get the spirit of King from watching the film, then I've done my job."
His research brought him into contact with a wide array of civil rights heroes, who helped shed light on the Dr. King most people have never seen. 'One of the greatest privileges for me was spending time with Ambassador Andrew Young, who was very close with Dr. King. And the thing that surprised me is how much he talked about Dr. King's sense of humor, what a prankster he was, how much he loved to laugh – and also how much these men did not feel they had the answers. He talked about the fact that they were just preachers, but they found themselves fighting these injustices that were there before them. They really weren't these portentous people we might imagine. They were more muddling through, as young men do. But the important thing is that they did not shy away from the task at hand."
He may have been young and riven by doubts, but the pressure on King was immense. He knew he was under 24/7 FBI surveillance and facing constant threats against himself and those he loved. As seen in the film, the FBI even famously sent him a cassette of sexual noises accompanied by a threatening letter that read in part, 'the American public . . . will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast," in the hopes of damaging him psychologically. He was shaken many times, but he was never deterred.
David Oyelowo constantly kept in mind that King was just 36 in 1965, through all these events. 'He always had a gravitas about him, even at the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the age of 26," the actor points out. 'But it's hard to get your head around the fact that he died at 39, and in all those images you see of him, he was in his 20s and 30s - yet he was carrying this incredible weight on his shoulders."
Ava DuVernay was moved by David Oyelowo's commitment to accessing Dr. King. 'He has channeled something so true," she says. 'David works with his whole heart. He has a deep reservoir of emotion and he can go anywhere, do anything. He has his own ideas but he also knows how to trust. He is also very tuned into politics and history, and he wanted to share that in a way that everyone can feel like this is their story – so we shared that in common. As a director, you couldn't ask for more."
She adds: 'When I first saw him step into the pulpit, it was all I could do to just hold it together. I knew how much it meant to him and how much it could mean to those who see the film."
Later, when Congressman John Lewis visited the set, he too was deeply moved. The moment he saw Oyelowo in costume, he commented out loud: 'Dr. King, it's been a long time."
The authenticity of David Oyelowo's performance took all the filmmakers aback. 'The more you see King as a human being, the more it amplifies the enormity of what he did," says Jeremy Kleiner. 'It's an incredible performance. And this role was deeply personal for David Oyelowo – he's a person of faith and he felt so strongly connected to the character. There was a kind of a serenity to David Oyelowo that was humble, yet at the same time full of conviction and confidence."
Kleiner recalls one particular moment when David Oyelowo's commitment and research came to fore with subtle power. 'There's a wonderful moment when Dr. King first arrives at the White House to meet with the President, and you have these few seconds before they get down to business, just making small talk. There's no footage that we know of that shows how Dr. King behaved in what must have been a very awkward moment but David Oyelowo's performance is so brilliant, because you can feel that weight on his shoulders, you can feel how he almost can't contain himself and yet how he's also trying to be a pleasant person to have tea with. In those 12 seconds, David Oyelowo brings a deep understanding of King's psychology."
The idea that Dr. King's journey is part of a larger quest stretching back into history impressed itself upon DavidOyelowo, who also had a role in Spielberg's Lincoln, reminding him of how long the battle to vote had been waged. 'There's a scene in Lincoln where I say the exact same thing to Abraham Lincoln as I say to LBJ in Selma. In January 1865, my character is asking if we will be able to vote and exactly 100 years later, I am still asking that same thing," he points out.
At the same time, he couldn't help but see how timely the film was when many victories are apparent but voting rights and racial discrimination are very much still in the headlines. 'The events in Selma give you the groundwork for the America we now live in," he observes. 'Without King there would be no Obama. Without King there may have been no voting rights at that time. Without the movements of the 60s, almost certainly we wouldn't have many freedoms we now enjoy. But I think you also get a sense of how high the cost was, and how tragic it would be if what was achieved is treated trivially or lost."
Most of all, David Oyelowo thinks it is the very idea of self-sacrifice that must endure. 'For me, what was so incredible about this group of people is the fact that they were not superheroes, but that did not prevent them from doing heroic things. Their power was that they were operating out of love in the face of hate. Right now, we live in a world where there's so much inhumanity, so to have a film that reminds us of the beauty of our humanity, the power of peaceful protest and that we do have a voice, I think is needed."
Surrounding Dr. King in Selma are a group of equally vibrant civil rights leader - who Ava DuVernay dubs 'The Kingsmen" – brought to life in charismatic performances.
They include civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who represented Rosa Parks fresh out of law school, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.; nonviolent activist and desegregationist James Bevel who was at Dr. King's side through many of his most important actions and when he was assassinated in Memphis, portrayed by influential rapper and actor Common; Andrew Young, the young minister who would go on to a distinguished career in politics, a role taken by André Holland; the Reverend Hosea Williams, a minister and a scientist who became a leader of the SCLC, heading key demonstrations, played by Wendell Pierce.
The group also includes Bayard Rustin, a committed pacifist and civil rights activist since the 40s who was an influence on many young activists, performed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; James Forman, who as a leader of SNCC pushed for more aggressive protest techniques, sometimes butting heads with Dr. King, played by Trai Byers; Reverend James Orange, who was arrested during a 1965 voter drive in Alabama and became a top aide to Dr. King, portrayed by Omar J. Dorsey; Reverend Frederick Reese, head of the Selma Teachers Association who first invited Dr. King and the SCLC to Selma, played by E. Roger Mitchell; John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the SNCC in 1965 and now a long-standing Congressman from Georgia, who is brought to life by Canadian actor Stephan James; and Dr. King's close friend and fellow activist Reverend Ralph Abernathy portrayed by Colman Domingo.
Lyndon Banes Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, led the nation during some of its most dizzying years of social turmoil and change. He was initially the 'accidental" President, thrust into the role after the Kennedy assassination, then won a landslide victory in the 1964 election. Ultimately, he would preside over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and push for sweeping reforms to end poverty and inequality – but he was also associated with the unending war in Vietnam and became a target of counterculture protestors looking for change to the status quo.
Early on in his presidency, Lyndon Banes Johnson began a little-known, complicated relationship with Dr. King – one that was at once adversarial and respectful. Without their collaboration, and all the savvy negotiating and tug-of-war it involved, it is unlikely the Voting Rights Act would have passed so quickly or even at all.
Finding an actor to play the pivotal role of Lyndon Banes Johnson was no easy task. Perhaps one the most colorful characters to ever be U.S. President, the tall, hulking Texan was a one-of-a kind, as famed for his coarse, unpolished way of speaking as for his mastery of political back-and-forth. But Oscar® nominated British actor Tom Wilkinson was intrigued because he says, 'challenge is something I enjoy very much."
Tom Wilkinson evolved his own restrained reading of Lyndon Banes Johnson's personality. 'I thought it was very wrong to do an impersonation of LBJ," he says. 'Impersonations are so distracting, so when Ava DuVernay told me that she wasn't interested in an impersonation, that drew me. I wanted to show just enough of LBJ so you believe in him as a man." He did watch footage of Lyndon Banes Johnson but notes, 'In interviews and when the camera is rolling, he's on his best behavior, so you don't always see that tougher side we now know he had."
Coming from England, Tom Wilkinson brought an outsider's POV on what it means to be President. 'I was able to come at it from a certain distance since the U.S. President doesn't loom as large in my consciousness," he explains. 'LBJ was making decisions about things of great importance but he was also, after all, just a human being. Presidents don't become these magnificent superbeings when they are elected. They are simply men doing the best they can under the most trying circumstances imaginable."
Much as playing Lyndon Banes Johnson was a draw, Tom Wilkinson says it was Selma's story of how ordinary people can spark transformative change that deeply moved him. 'This is a story about the core not only of democracy but of human rights. Around the world, voting rights and human rights remain huge issues and I think the more people are reminded of it, the more it renews itself in people's conversations."
Selma also brings to light the man who tenaciously pushed LBJ to collaborate with Dr. King: Lee C. White. Known for his unimposing style, but also his championing of integration, White served as a consultant on civil rights for both Kennedy and Johnson – and was instrumental in driving Johnson to address Congress directly after the events of 'Bloody Sunday." Giovanni Ribisi says he took the behind-the-scenes role of White because he was moved by the people in the story – and those telling it today. 'I'm an admirer of so many people involved in this project and it really came down to that," he says.
Lee C. White, Giovanni Ribisi notes, was battling for a President's attention while he was buried under an avalanche of national crises. 'Lee C. White was working for somebody in LBJ who had inherited a whole lot of problems. There were so many things going on but he managed to bring civil rights to the forefront," he says.
Giovanni Ribisi was especially exhilarated by Tom Wilkinson's performance. 'There have been portrayals of LBJ where he is almost a comedic character, because he could be so eccentric. But Tom Wilkinson had a very specific and natural take on him. I think he really understood something about Johnson – that he was very conscientious about control and about his reputation. Ultimately, Lyndon Johnson saw that the situation in Selma was only going to escalate tension across the U.S. without action – and the opportunity was there to act."
One of the stoniest obstacles protestors faced was Alabama's Governor, George Wallace, a very different kind of Southern politician from Johnson. Though he would later say he regretted it, Wallace at that time was a staunch, outspoken segregationist whose bigoted talk provoked tensions across the nation. In 1962, he ran on a pro-segregation platform and when he was elected overwhelmingly, gave an inaugural speech in which he announced: 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Despite his pandering to crass prejudice, George Wallace was cast in the classic populist mold, and seen by many voters as a champion of the working class and an embodiment of Southern pride. He would go on to a long career in Alabama politics, serving as Governor four times and also running four times for President. (During the 1972 primaries, he was shot five times by a would-be assassin, leaving him paralyzed.)
Taking the role of Wallace in Selma is Academy Award® nominee Tim Roth. Roth remembers thinking of Wallace as a monster growing up, but was not afraid of the role's darkness. 'I remember seeing him on TV and being amazed by what was coming out of his mouth," he recalls. 'I had only ever thought of him as an indescribably bad guy so I thought it would be interesting to explore who he was further."
He dove in completely, though he was acutely aware of how painful the words he was speaking could be to others. 'I remember the first time I saw David Oyelowo, I was making an extremely racist speech and he was there watching in costume as Dr. King and it was just quite extraordinary," Tim Roth recalls.
But Tim Roth says the importance of the story kept him focused on embodying Wallace as accurately as possible, in both his allure and his divisive politicking. 'This movie is full of fascinating historical moments I had no idea took place," he comments. 'Ava DuVernay has done her work so well that I think this film will stun people as it engages them. It's an inspirational portrait of how you raise the consciousness of the world."
The Other Civil Rights Story: Women
One of the lesser-known stories of the civil rights movement is how pivotal women were to the very beating heart of it. The movement's male leaders are rightfully celebrated, but many women campaigned with just as much zeal and courage – they marched, boycotted, sacrificed and provided key strategic ideas in equal step with their husbands, brothers and pastors, but often without public recognition.
Selma brings several real-life courageous women's stories to the fore at last. Says Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper: 'The truth of the matter is that women were the backbone of the civil rights movement. Behind every one of the men out there, this band of brothers, there was a woman. There was Juanita Abernathy behind Ralph Abernathy, Coretta King behind Martin Luther King. Everybody had somebody, whether a mother, aunt, wife or sister, who was there behind them as a force, saying, -We're here. We're standing with you,' and that's often not shown or seen. But because we have the mighty Ava DuVernay as director, you really feel the presence of women in this film; and I think this is the first time a lot of people will know about women like Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper and Diane Nash."
Ava DuVernay says she felt an obligation to give credit where it too often has been ignored. 'I couldn't imagine how you could tell this story and not do justice to what really happened, not do justice to women like Coretta Scott King, Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash, or Richie Jackson, the housewife who hosted these great leaders in her home. It was unthinkable to tell the story without them."
Among the powerful women audiences get to know in Selma is Dr. King's likewise iconic wife, Coretta, who had a distinguished career of activism in her own right. Taking the role is Carmen Ejogo – in her second turn as the character, having previously played Coretta in the 2001 HBO movie 'Boycott," about the bus boycotts of 1955. Ejogo notes that Mrs. King changed a lot in the intervening years, having seen and endured unimaginable suffering, but also having become even more committed in her beliefs.
'I felt I was really dealing with a very different character," she says. 'Her marriage to Martin and her life are in a very different state in Selma. In 1955, they were just starting to be leaders of this movement, but in 1965 Coretta and Martin are deep in the trenches, really feeling the threat of violence and death as a potential on their horizons. I think it was something very palpable to her, and as a result there was much more burden on her – and that was evident in how she conducted herself. It's quite interesting to have played her at a young stage in her life and have the chance to explore a weightier time 10 years later."
Ejogo had a thrilling chance to meet Coretta during that first production (Mrs. King passed away in 2006), an invaluable experience she kept close. 'I was so grateful Coretta gave me her blessing then and I hope she would have given me the same for this one. She was a remarkable woman," the actress recalls. 'I was moved to tears when I first met her because without saying a word she just had this stoicism about her. Her presence had such grandeur that you couldn't help but be overwhelmed by it. Eventually, I composed myself and got to know her as an incredibly warm, matriarchal figure, and I felt very fortunate."
Ejogo looked for the full humanity of Coretta, who in 1965 is confronting not only the dangers to her family and the enormity of what the civil rights struggle is facing, but the hard knowledge of her husband's affairs. 'I think Coretta was forever the devoted wife, but what we explore in this film is the fact that internally there was a lot of struggle that she had to go through on many levels," she says. 'This is the time when she walked through that struggle and decided to be by her husband's side in a very visible way."
She especially enjoyed embodying the historic moment when Coretta met privately with Malcolm X in Selma, just weeks before the controversial activist was killed – wherein a changed Malcolm X (played by Nigel Thatch) expressed interest in reconciling with Dr. King and working with the nonviolent movement.
But it was her rapport with David Oyelowo that made the role so special. She says they both were steeped in research. 'I really appreciated the fact that he knew absolutely everything about Martin and a lot about Coretta," she says. 'He worked so hard to find the tempo, the melody and the rhythms of Martin that you couldn't help but respond to that. He was just a very generous person to work opposite."
Oprah Winfrey takes the role of Annie Lee Cooper, who came to global notoriety when she confronted Sheriff Jim Clark's violence while waiting in line yet again to register to vote. To protect herself and others, the then 54 year-old Cooper delivered a right hook to the Sheriff, who was knocked to the ground in front of media cameras (before arising and arresting Cooper). Today, there is an Annie Cooper Avenue in Selma to celebrate her resolve to vote in the face of such brutality. (Cooper passed away at age 100 in 2010.)
Oprah Winfrey says she hesitated but could not resist playing a woman whose legend is not widely known. 'I got talked into doing Annie Lee Cooper," she muses. 'I wasn't sure I wanted to play her because Sofia in The Color Purple punches out a sheriff and Gloria in The Butler punches out her son. I thought, -Am I just doing punching roles?' So I was a little reluctant – but 'I was convinced to do Annie Lee Cooper because of the magnitude of the woman and the magnificence of what her courage meant to an entire movement."
Jeremy Kleiner observes that Winfrey encapsulated the humility of that courage on screen. 'Even in just those few moments with the voting registrar, you get such a layered look at Annie," he says. 'Oprah Winfrey communicates both that sense of fatigue and an indefatigable sense of resilience in that one moment."
Annie Lee Cooper's place in history weighed on Winfrey. 'I wanted to do her justice, because although she's a vital civil rights figure, many people don't know her name. It was her willingness to step up to keep trying to vote, not once, not twice or three times, but numerous times - and in the face of denial to keep standing up – that makes her so important. I asked her former caretaker, -why do you think she hit the sheriff that day, knowing that might be a deadly move?' And the caretaker said to me, -She just got tired of it.'"
Oprah Winfrey continues: 'And that's really what I was trying to step into: the place where that fatigue with the way things are has built up to a point that a person can no longer withstand it. Faced with being deprived of your human rights, with being constantly put down, with having people look at you day in and day out and not see you as the human being that you are – after awhile it will either depress you or enrage you. And in that moment Annie Lee Cooper was enraged, and it all came out."
Another heroine of Selma is Amelia Boynton who was badly beaten during the first 'Bloody Sunday" march. Boynton's activism went back to her childhood. Born in 1911, she campaigned as a girl for suffrage, and registered to vote in 1934. In 1964, she became the first African American woman to run for Congress in Alabama. To play the role, the filmmakers chose Lorraine Touissant, the Trinidad-born, Brooklyn–raised actress known for her role on 'Orange Is The New Black." Says Winfrey, 'It's exciting that this may be the first time many people outside the South will get to hear about Amelia Boynton."
Eight-time Grammy-nominated recording artist and actress Ledisi Young is another contemporary star who steps into historic shoes, playing legendary 'Queen of Gospel," Mahalia Jackson, a friend of Martin Luther King's who sang haunting hymns at his 'I Have a Dream" speech as well as his funeral.
Also strongly involved in the marches was Diane Nash, then the wife of James Bevel and a founder of SNCC. Known for her visible bravery, Nash led lunch counter protests, Freedom Rides, and began conducting non-violent actions in Alabama in 1963 following the Birmingham church bombing. Tessa Thompson (recently seen in Dear White People), who takes the role, was awed by Nash's grit.
'She was an incredibly courageous woman who became a leader when she was only a teenager. At 20 she was able to make the U.S. Attorney General call and ask -who the hell is Diane Nash?' because she was creating such a stir. To me, she is a leader of the civil rights movement who remains painfully unsung. So it was a pleasure to get to play her and in some small way contribute to people knowing more about her."
Although Nash was often called 'fearless," Thompson believes she tempered her fear with determination. 'Fearless is a nice thing to be called, but it wasn't the full truth. At one sit-in Diane said she was struck with so much fear and she had to stop herself and say -if I am going to lead I have to move past this.' And that's the more incredible thing I think – when someone can take their fear on and say I want to be someone who tries to make this world a better place whatever it takes – that's remarkable, and something I hope this movie reminds us of."
Thompson also loved having the chance to work with Common in the role of James Bevel. 'Common is another member of this cast who is an incredibly unique talent," she says. ' He has been such a socially aware rapper, such a role model. And he was inspiring to work with as an actor, because he has a kind of childlike excitability. He has such zest and curiosity, and that's invigorating to be around."
In playing Nash, Thompson came to deeply appreciate DuVernay's attempt to enlarge the view of civil rights leaders. 'I think there is this notion among people now that these were trained and polished leaders in the 60s. But after getting to know some of them, the truth is they were truly regular people. Some were preachers so they had an aptitude for public speaking, but they were just people who had a hard time standing still in the face of injustice. It begs the question: if you were alive during that time, what side of history would you have been on? Would you have been the person who says I am going to take a risk? We all like to think we would but that takes a tremendous amount of faith and strength and guts."
Going to Selma: The Film's Design
Selma was shot largely in the state of Alabama in many of the same locales – if not the same atmosphere – where these historic events took place. Shooting in authentic locations, often with senior Alabamians who lived through those times as witnesses, was of vital importance to Ava DuVernay.
'It was crucial to shoot in the South, crucial to get into Alabama, and crucial to be on the Edmund Pettus Bridge," says the director. 'We needed to stand where the real marchers stood, where they bled and cried and held hands like that. We needed to get into the DNA of the place, the spirit that is there."
Although no one was sure initially what the reception would be in Alabama, the production found itself welcomed and supported everywhere they went. 'We felt really fortunate that the State of Alabama and the people of Selma allowed us to recreate the story there, because it's hallowed ground for them," Ava DuVernaysays. 'We could have been turned away, but instead they embraced us."
'It was very moving to shoot there," says Dede Gardner. 'There are visible reminders of what this story is about everywhere. To be shooting on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to have David preaching at the same pulpit where King preached, to be driving to the stage on Ralph Abernathy Freeway– there's something so rich and valuable about being inside that space. It's the fabric of this story. Everyone had vivid memories to share and those memories have become part of the rhythm of Selma today."
Meanwhile, Ava DuVernay's crew was working around-the-clock to create a kind of transporting time machine out of details, hoping to both honor history and bring it immediately alive right now. Director of photography Bradford Young, production designer Mark Friedberg and costume designer Ruth E. Carter each immersed themselves in both the recent past and the Alabamian landscape.
Young, who has emerged as one of the most distinctive cinematographers of a new generation, is known for his deeply expressive use of naturalistic lighting – which lent itself to the intimate contours of the story. 'Bradford creates such a rich a mood and atmosphere that you don't feel like you're looking at past history – you feel that you're in same room with King," observes Jeremy Kleiner. 'You really feel you are in the jail cell, you feel you are in the King home. His photography enhances the sense that these are real people. His sensibility seemed to be a perfect match with Ava's approach and the nature of the story."
Mark Friedberg's unusual background for a production designer – he was an American History major in college whose focus was on the civil rights movement – gave him perspective from the start. 'I had some sense of that world," he says. 'But more than that, I think like everyone involved, I felt a personal commitment to telling this essential American story that is both about a legacy and the future."
Says Gardner of Mark Friedberg: 'Mark has an incredibly beautiful and varied resume, though he most recently has been working on very, very big movies. Yet when we were looking for someone for Selma, Adam Stockhausen, the production designer on Twelve Years a Slave, said -you'll see, there's no one more suited to this than Mark.' It was really something for which Mark, too, had a deep connection. He even had a book that was given to him by his godmother inscribed by Dr. King. I think he's always wondered how he could express some of this in his work – and he just threw down in a really profound way."
Mark Friedberg was instantly drawn to Ava DuVernay's POV. 'It's not that often that you get to see a civil rights story told by an African American filmmaker, and I loved that she brought an original approach we haven't really seen," he says. 'She doesn't tell a story of martyrdom. Her story is about achievement."
Ava DuVernay's emphasis on intimacy also intrigued Mark Friedberg, but he wanted to bring an accompanying sense of scope to the design – even if resources were slim. 'I came to this film from Spiderman 2, so that was a different kind of budget," he muses. 'But then you realise you can create epic scope by getting deeper and richer with the details rather than with bigger strokes. In this story, you have so many contrasts. You go from rural Alabama to Pennsylvania Avenue. And I think the trick was letting the audience really feel the story moving from one world to another. To do that, we paid a lot of attention to what was on the walls, what was on the desks, what were the textures of all these very different lives."
That texture came to the fore especially in the houses where so many vital conversations took place, including the Kings' house, which Friedberg describes as 'having a simple, quiet elegance that was very of the times. That was Coretta; that was all her style."
Mark Friedberg especially enjoyed bringing to life the house of Dr. Sullivan Jackson (Kent Faulcon), the Selma dentist who, along with his wife Richie Jean (Niecy Nash), allowed King and the march organizers to use their home as an impromptu headquarters.
'That house was the center of all the behind-the-scenes debates that went on," explains the designer. 'It needed to have an energetic feel but one that also invokes the ancestors, because you have to remember this is a struggle that began 400 years ago and was built on the backs of many. The real house inspired a lot of the palette – it had this crazy turquoise and orange. It was vibrant and alive and not really designed, but it in a good way."
Working with Young was especially interesting. 'Everything was so married together that Bradford and I became lovers creatively," comments Mark Friedberg. 'I was thinking about the lighting more and he was coming more into the world of sets - and it really unified into some beautiful frames."
Mark Friedberg tackled a broad diversity of environments – from fresh replicas of the Oval Office and Governor Wallace's Montgomery office, where the palette switches to shades of flag-like red, white and blue; to finding a stand-in for 82 year-old Cager Lee's impoverished farm home. It all built to the most essential set of all: a re-creation of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as it appeared in 1965.
The arched steel bridge leading out of Selma across the Alabama River was built in 1940 and named to honor Alabama Senator Edmund Pettus, who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. No one could have foreseen then that it would become the iconic site where state and local police first stopped the attempted march to Montgomery, ravaging the crowd with Billy clubs and tear gas with such force that the date was re-named 'Bloody Sunday." But nearly 50 years later, in 2013, the bridge was declared a historic landmark because of the role it played in turning voting rights into a national cause.
For Mark Friedberg, it was sobering to work on a bridge stained in blood and tears before it became a passage to a new era. 'It felt very real and also unusually sacred to be telling this story in this place where it happened," he observes. 'On the first day we shot there, I saw locals and extras crying because they were people who had actually been there in 1965. It was an experience unlike anything else."
The bridge sequences gripped everyone with emotion. Recalls Oprah Winfrey: 'I remember thinking wow, 50 years ago, the marchers' feet actually touched this same pavement mine are touching right now. And 50 years ago, they were attacked by troopers right here. There's something so spiritually powerful about that, to be walking in the same footsteps of those people who paved the way for you. We had to be on that bridge to feel that."
Costume designer Carter was also tuning into that spirit of how the past and present intertwine as she tackled the costumes. Carter garnered Academy Award® nominations for two previous historical epics: Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Spike Lee's Malcolm X (she got a second chance to dress the character in Selma), but she says she had an intense feeling of responsibility going into this one. 'I did feel a responsibility to this history," she says, 'and it's actually a nice thing to take your work that seriously. Some designers will say they don't care about being authentic but with a story like this one, you feel you have to be true. It's such a place of honor to be able to retell our history in this very real way."
Though the process was heavy on research, it was also personal for Carter. 'The script takes you on an emotional journey so I started from my own emotional journey," she recalls. 'What spoke to me right away was the way it painted an arc outward from these innocent little girls in Birmingham. Those images spoke to my childhood because I remember so well getting my gloves and patent leather shoes to go to church. And from that moment in the film you are on a road that leads to the marches. I wanted to build to that, from something more restrained to something more boldly colorful."
The script drew further creative inspiration from the celebrated African American artist Romare Bearden whose portraits of Southern folk traditions and innovative photomontage collages embraced black culture in illuminating ways. 'I thought he was the perfect artist to refer to because he looked so deeply at these Southern communities and all the colors and textures that come out of that landscape," she says.
Ultimately, Carter fused the intense realism of archival footage with this more kaleidoscopic sense of a South in flux. Throughout, she says, Ava DuVernay was a passionate collaborator. 'It's wonderful to talk about ideas with someone as smart and gifted as Ava is. She was always very specific about what she likes and she was very excited about the research. I remember when I found a picture of the real Jimmie Lee Jackson and I brought it to her – right away, she put it on her wall and it was like a beacon."
Selma was a huge costuming job, but at the core of it was dressing Dr. King and the civil rights leaders who gathered in Alabama at that pivotal moment. For David Oyelowo, Carter's team handmade a number of suits patterned after those Dr. King wears in nearly every famous photograph. 'A lot of research went into the fabrics and the detail of the suits, because you can't easily find fabrics and cuts like that anymore," she notes. 'And we found out that King liked to monogram so we monogrammed a lot of things as well. Dr. 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."
For the 'Kingsmen," Carter kept things low-key. 'When I talked to Andrew Young, he told me these guys didn't have a lot of extra spending money, so they did a lot of -buy one get one free' and they'd go get two suits on sale and just wear them out. So for each of these guys, we had a dark suit and a brown suit, but they each had their own particular style based on what I observed about them," she says.
Coretta Scott King was another highlight for Carter. 'Working with Carmen Ejogo was super special to me because we all wanted to see a fresh version of Coretta. We wanted someone who was more womanly, more real, not a remote icon. Carmen really wanted to show off these other sides to her, and when we looked at photographs we noticed that she often had a really big laugh. So we wanted to capture her sense of humor but also her beauty and the fact that she was becoming a real leader herself. She was finding her own place in the movement. 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."
Carter especially drew joy from dressing the film's key women. 'I know these ladies. I was raised by these women and I know them. The South was my heritage and it was like going home," she muses.
To dress Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, she looked at domestic workers of the 60s, some of whom were also marchers in Selma. 'You saw women in marching in head scarves and Hush Puppies looking like they'd been to work earlier that day," she observes. 'I said to myself, Annie Lee Cooper probably did go to work those days. I felt like I knew her, too. I knew she had an old 50s coat and a big handbag and practical shoes and she was a church-going lady. I remember I drew a picture of her early on and sent it to Oprah and Ava with a note that said -here's Annie' and Ava simply texted back -yes, ma'am.'"
Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton posed a different challenge. 'Amelia was a more well- to-do, sophisticated woman, always well dressed in a suit and jacket and gloves. She was almost like a businesswoman of the civil rights movement. And when Lorraine came in to talk to me she really knew all about Amelia, down to the smallest details, so it was wonderful to work with her in a very clear direction."
Diane Nash was another contrast as a young activist coming out of the burgeoning student movement. 'The lovely Tessa Thompson was so wonderful to dress. She reminded me of my sister in her penny loafers, A-line skirts and cotton blouses – it was so simple but a very put-together collegiate 60s look," says Carter. 'In her own way, Diane was a radical but she was also very lady-like, and Tessa gives you both sides. Diane was such a part of the team, it was nice to give her more visibility."
Carter's favorite costumes might be those that first drew her into the story. 'I am especially proud of those little girls in Birmingham," she says. 'I made all of those dresses and it was something I felt strongly about doing, connecting to my memories of going to Sunday school and that unfathomable loss."
Coming full circle to the marches, Carter constructed each of the three marches to become progressively brighter and bolder. 'I was thinking of the American flag," she says. 'So I didn't allow for there to be any red in the clothing until the final march that makes it to Montgomery, and then suddenly there is a lot of red, so you get a different kind of feeling."
Like her cast and crewmates, Carter was deeply moved shooting on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, especially the second march, known as 'Turn-Around Tuesday." 'Each of the marches was incredible because we were all thinking about what these marchers were up against," Carter concludes. 'It was so incredibly hot but everyone had big coats on because we realized the marchers wore them knowing they'd be hit. With the second march, I remember when the group got down on their knees with Dr. King. Suddenly, I was running to get everyone soft items to kneel on. It really hit me then that this was such an unusual film. In that moment, it became about much more than just dressing people. It was about taking care of the people who were wearing my clothes. It was about really honoring what happened there in a deep way."
Timeline: The Selma Marches
Jan. 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference turn their attention to Selma, Alabama where only 2% of black citizens are registered to vote and where voting registration has long been obstructed
Feb. 2: King is arrested with hundreds during a voting rights protest in Selma
Feb. 5: Governor George Wallace bans nighttime demonstrations in Selma and Marion
Feb. 18: State troopers attack marchers in Marion, Alabama and unarmed protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26 year-old church deacon, is shot and killed while attempting to protect his mother Viola Jackson and his grandfather Cager Lee
March 7: The first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, is halted by state and local lawmen at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 600 marchers are tear-gassed, driven back and many severely beaten, resulting in the day becoming known around the world as 'Bloody Sunday."
March 8: King calls on religious leaders to join the marchers in Selma
March 9: King leads a second march, but this time the crowd turns back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, fearing violence from state troopers. This becomes known as 'Turn Around Tuesday."
March 9: Following the march, Boston-based minister James Reeb is horrifically beaten by white segregationists armed with clubs after eating dinner. He dies two days later of head injuries.
March 15: President Johnson addresses Congress and the American people, saying 'It is wrong, deadly wrong, to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country" and announces he will be introducing voting rights legislation imminently. His speech will later be celebrated as one of the most powerful Presidential addresses.
March 17: The Selma marchers win their case in court when Federal District Judge Frank M. Johnson rules that they have the right to march for the redress of their grievances
March 18: Governor Wallace condemns the Judge's ruling before the Alabama legislature
March 20: President Johnson issues an executive order that federalizes the Alabama National Guard
March 21: Around 4,000 marchers leave Selma protected by federal troops on the 50-mile trek to Montgomery
March 25: The marchers reach Montgomery but now their numbers are close to 25,000. King delivers a landmark speech on the steps of the State Capitol.
August 6: President Johnson signs the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965
Release Date: February 12th, 2015