selma-movie-posterI know awards are subjective and really shouldn’t matter, but a day after the Oscar nominations were announced, I’m still upset that Ava DuVernay, the director of the stunning film Selma and David Oyelowo, who brilliantly plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, were overlooked by the Academy. It really makes no sense to me at all. Again, not that it matters in the bigger picture. Selma is doing well at the box office and, as I write this, the film is being screened for President Obama and his family in the White House with members of the cast and crew present. It’s the perfect movie to watch just before Monday’s holiday to honor Dr. King. The screening takes place exactly 100 years after the first official showing of a movie in the White House. That film, screened for President Woodrow Wilson, was none other than D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the controversial if beautifully made movie that basically glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

Selma is also being screened in participating cities across the country free of charge for hundreds of thousand of students, thanks to the contributions of African American business leaders. Click here for more information on that program.

The film looks at a critical three-month period in 1965 — the events leading up to the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. In addition to Oyelowo’s career-defining portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., the film also features Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, Common as James Bevel, Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton, and many other excellent actors including Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dylan Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, and Oprah Winfrey.

I had the pleasure of taking part in a small roundtable discussion with Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo. We started with just the director and asked her about the particular period that is shown in the film.

ava-duvernayAva DuVernay: Selma takes place right after the “I Have a Dream” speech. I think Dr. King’s life is too big, too epic to put into a two-hour film, I honestly don’t know how you could possibly do a cradle-to-grave film about Martin Luther King, Jr. For some people you can, but not him. We were committed to telling the story of Selma. You could almost synopsize the whole of his life in those three months.

There are many scenes that are painful to watch. Did you have to think about how to depict some of those situations without making it too uncomfortable for the audience?

I never hesitated to show the violence and aggression that these people had to deal with on a daily basis. I think you cannot fully understand the risks, the commitment, unless you show what the test was. You were walking up to a line of state troopers knowing that they were out to get you, not to protect you. For me it’s been a challenge with some of the civil rights films in the past. I think they’re a little soft. My dad is from Montgomery, Alabama, and I’ve heard the stories. That test has to be shown and I’ve never veered away from showing it because I think that does a disservice to a people who were there. You can’t sugar-coat it.

Was it difficult to take such a well-known historic figure and make him human? [At that moment actor David Oyelowo walks into the room and sits down next to DuVernay.]

Speaking of making him human! (Laughs.) Presto! Were you waiting outside the room for just the right moment to come in?

David Oyelowo: It’s nice to see you all!

david-carmenAva: We did talk about that. Many of us know Dr. King as a statue, we know him as a holiday, we know him from his speeches, but we don’t know him as a man. How did he look at his wife? How did he interact with his four kids? These little pieces became so important, we worked really hard on that. Like in that first scene in the kitchen with his wife when she picks up the phone. I remember talking to David and Carmen about the kinds of things that really happen between couples in those moments. We have that bit in the middle of the scene where he’s taking the garbage out and looking for a new bag. Of course he can’t find one because he’s not there enough to know where she keeps them. Those moments say so much about people. Those little things humanize him.

David, we heard the story that you felt like God told you that you were supposed to play Dr. King. Is there any truth to that?

David-OyelowoDavid: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. I first read a script for this film in July 2007, just after my wife and I had moved from the UK to Los Angeles. To be honest, we had two kids at the time (now we have four), and I had this moment of “What on earth are we doing here?” So it was a time of deep prayer. “Lord, I just hope this works!” And then this script came along and maybe because I was already in that mode, I very clearly got the message, “You are going to play Dr. King in Selma.” It wasn’t just that I was going to play Dr. King at some point in his life, it was this film. And that was so weird to me that I started a prayer diary that day and that’s the first entry. I was like, “But I’m British! I haven’t done many American movies! Who on Earth do I think I am?” It was such a crazy thing but it lodged in my spirit in a way that I couldn’t shake. My wife helped me put together a couple of scenes on tape and I sent it to the director at the time. Unfortunately, he didn’t agree with God.

So God fired him!

(Laughs.) So many things happened over the next few years but to go from that situation where the director attached to the film didn’t want me to me being able to suggest a director that I love and adore and knew who was right is just a kind of extraordinary, undeniably miraculous situation. Especially since the film Ava and I had done together, Middle of Nowhere, was a $200,000 movie — a tiny, beautiful movie that won Ava the Best Director prize at Sundance in 2012, but very different from this kind of film. For us to get this movie done, the miracles surrounding it have just been undeniable from Day 1.


What was the most memorable day you two experienced together during the filming?

Ava: We had 32 days to shoot the film so we had to map it all out very clearly. We decided to have this thing called “Speech Day” where we were going to do both of the speeches in the church on the same day, back to back. We decided to do it during the second week of filming so David could get warmed up. It was such a big day. We got there and loaded in the extras, everyone is in period clothes, the cameras are set up, everything is ready to go, we hear just a little rain outside, it’s all very cozy. We have a moment with David, he prays with the extras so they feel like a real congregation, we have our three cameras ready…rolling…and I had just sat down with a little monitor and was about to call “Action!” when—

David: The lights went out. Every single light in that church went out!

Ava: It was an electrical storm.

David: Unforecast, by the way. So the lights went out and literally everyone went “Oooohh!” because we had gotten to such a peak. I had prayed with everyone, John Lewis was in the front pew.

Ava: Yes, the real John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had helped to plan the mark with Dr. King) was there that day!

David: The timing was just crazy. I remember calling my pastor, saying, “The devil is trying to stop us!” He said “David, God speaks in the thunder and the lightning, too, it’s fine!” The amazing thing is that we broke for lunch with this huge congregation and then went outside and saw this electrical storm combined with the sunset—

Ava: It literally made the front page in the international news, I’ve never seen anything like that sky! It was 360-degrees purple, orange, and pink. And there were two rainbows, one on each side. We all went outside and took a picture together. We had one day to get these two speeches and we lost all this time, it could have seemed like a real disaster, but this peace came over us and it just seemed confirmed that everything was meant to happen this way. We loaded everyone back into the church and now we’d all been through something together. At that point they were like a real congregation.

David: People were saying, “Did you see that sky? You better preach, brother!”

Ava: So when we finally got into the scene, David had less time to do it, but he was so in pocket by that point, so present — he always is, but there was something extra, and the congregation was like, “Amen!” All that clapping was real, we didn’t add anything at all. They were just listening to him and feeling it.

David: It was undeniable, tangible — whether you’re a person of faith or not — we went through something, something clicked. Technically, as an actor, you’ve learned the lines, you have a notion of how you’re going to do it, but at that point I was surfing. It didn’t feel like acting, there was an energy that you felt you could just glide on.

Did you have a chance to talk to many of the people who worked with Dr. King?

Ava: Yes. As I said, Congressman John Lewis visited the set. Andrew Young was also pivotal — I spoke to him a lot  and bounced things off of him. He came to the set a couple of times. I had some conversations with Diane Nash. Did you know that John Doar, the assistant district attorney who’s played by Alessandro Nivola in the film, just died yesterday? Many of these legends, these beautiful people, are moving on to the next plane and it’s time for this story to be told.

David: These are heroes in the truest sense. To me sacrificial love is greatest attribute we exhibit as human beings and that attribute is so clearly demonstrated by these people. Their faith married up with their social activism and we live in a different America today because of them. It was an incredible day when they came to set and, in a way, anointed our film.


It must have been very moving to film some of those important scenes in the actual locations where they took place — such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Oh, big time. It was such a blessing to be in the exact place because again, like on Speech Day, as an actor you’re always trying to shelve your acting and get to the place of being. This is very much a living memory, and to be on that bridge with many people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who were actually there, that was incredible. The same thing with the speech on the exact spot on those capitol steps in Montgomery. Our production designer had a lectern up there for me to give the very last speech in the film. He kept saying, “It just isn’t right.” So he walked across the street to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and asked if he could use the podium there and they said, “No, it’s affixed, but we did find a lectern in the basement two days ago, you can use that one.” So he puts it up there and goes to archival footage and — it’s the same pulpit!

Ava: It’s the exact some one. It was in the basement all of that time.

David: You can see the scratches, the markings on it — everything! When things like that start happening, you just have to think, “Okay, something else is in charge here. Let’s get this thing done!”