selma-movie-posterAva DuVernay’s remarkable film Selma chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.  DuVernay’s film tells the story of how Dr. King and his brothers and sisters in the movement forever altered history. In addition to stunning performances by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Selma features an inspiring and impressive group of actors playing various real-life figures. The cast includes Lorraine Toussaint, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, and, in the role of civil rights leader James Bevel, hip hop recording artist and actor Common who also wrote a stirring anthem for the film called “Glory” with John Legend. I recently had the pleasure of participating in a roundtable discussion with Common along with a few other journalists. He spoke eloquently about what being in this film meant to him.

Common: For me, this has been the most inspiring and fulfilling film that I ever got to be a part of. It’s one of my most fulfilling experiences in life, and definitely as a creator and actor. This is something that I’m marking down as saying, “Man, thank you. Thank you!”

How much did you immerse yourself in the real-life person that you were playing?

I did as much digging as I could. I read as much as I could find about James Bevel — where he come from and who he was — and I was blessed to get the opportunity to talk with some people who were part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. My own pastor’s father, Reverend Otis Moss, was part of the SCLC — Dr. King actually married him and his wife. I got to talk to him and listen to some of his stories. They all talked about James Bevel as being this brilliant crazy dude. We didn’t really get to go deep into that in this movie, but he was also always known as being radical. He wore those overalls because he was a man of the people. I really connected with him and the whole plight of standing up for what you believe in. We had the privilege of sitting down with Ambassador Andrew Young who talked to us about living your life for what you’re willing to die for. Hopefully there is something that you are willing to die for in this world.

How do you think being a part of this film changed you?

I am going to walk with this for the rest of my life. I know I can fall back on certain things from this experience that I need to value and remember about my purpose in life. You see everyday people who live their purpose and who sacrifice — these teachers, these sanitation workers, just people from all walks of life — everyday people who said, “You know what? I’m standing up for what I believe in. I’m standing up for my community.” It just reaffirms what we all can do, you know?


So much of your music has dealt with spirituality and spiritual themes. What about your music prepared you to step into the role of a pastor?

I always wanted to play a pastor. You know, James Bevel wasn’t perfect. Dr. Martin Luther King wasn’t perfect. Ralph Abernathy wasn’t perfect. That’s what I loved about this film — you get to see the human beings. The spirituality in my music, the experiences I went through as a person, all that prepared me to be able to play a pastor because my foundation is God. But I also know that I’m human. I make flesh mistakes just like the best of us. So that’s really what prepared me more than anything. My heart is in helping out the community.

How did the song you wrote for the movie come about? Did you have the role already before they asked you to do the song?

Yeah, the role was separate from me writing the song. I got the role, we filmed the movie, and I went through that experience, getting to know the story of the people of Selma. At some point, Ava and I were just talking and she said, “I really would like for you to do a song.”  I remember sitting at home and thinking about John Legend, that he would be really good for this movie because he captures a certain spirituality and soul. He does his own work in the communities and in schools. So I gave him a call and we talked about the film. I gave him three titles and “Glory” was the last title I told him. He was in London and said he had one day off so he was going to go into the studio to record something. He sent me this piano track with him singing “Glory” and it sounded like he was in the church playing the song. So I just wrote a song thinking about what I can do to motivate people to want a better world. We showed the heart and spirit that Dr. King and all of the people of Selma represented. I wanted to acknowledge that some of these things are still going on now. I wanted a song that really empowered people, saying we fought to get here and this is not just a race thing. We fought as a people to get here. We can win this fight, we gonna win this fight. It was the hope and inspiration.

I think there are a lot of us who are familiar with David Oyelowo’s work and we’re excited to see him in this role. What was it like working with him?

He was a very warm, caring, committed, and just, to me, a great leader because he embraced everybody. You knew when you saw him as committed as he was, you knew you were in good hands. I already felt very confident working with Ava — she’s already impeccable, but knowing that the person who is playing Dr. King is David meant a lot. Before we even stepped on set, the reasons why he said he was equipped to be Dr. King were magnificent.

Did you get a chance to talk to anyone from Dr. King’s family?

Yes, we had an encounter with Dr. King’s daughter. We went to the Martin Luther King Center and his daughter asked to see us. She pointed a finger at all of us and asked, “Who are you playing?” Tessa was like, “I’m playing Diana Nash.” She was like, “Okay I can see that.” She asked me who I was playing. I said James Bevel. “Okay, I can kind of see that.” Then she asked David, “Who are you playing?” He said, “I’m playing your father.” And she was like, “Why do you think you could play my father?” He said basically that he lived his whole life for this role and many times he tried to get it done, but it was never the right time or with the right people and now it is the right time and the right people. From that point on, I knew everything was aligned where it was supposed to be. You don’t get to be a part of projects like this very often. I’m part of something that potentially could be historic. I mean, it’s already capturing history, but it can go down in history, too.


Was there a particularly powerful moment on set for you during the shooting of the film?

One of the most intense moments was when we went to see Jimmie Lee Jackson’s body. Just seeing a young man’s body in an autopsy room was tough. I’ve seen a lot of young people slain, so that was definitely something. And hearing Dr. King speak in the churches. You would get moved. People weren’t just clapping for the cameras, they were moved by his speeches because he was talking to people that were working regular jobs and people that come from the roots of this struggle. So those words really resonate with them still. When I heard that one of the hashtags for the film is #SelmaIsNow, I was like, “That’s what it is. Selma is now!” Those people in the church felt that. It’s something that Dr. King’s speeches apply to now. When I was working on “Glory,” before I would go into the studio, I would listen to a Dr. King speech and I was like, “Man, this really relates to us now. Selma is now.”

How was it working with Ava DuVernay?

The thing that I feel translated in this film was Ava’s selflessness. When you see this movie, you don’t feel like “Oh, this director is trying to pull at your heart strings,” or “This director is manipulating things.” No, this is a woman who had a strong perspective and understanding of what this movement is. She stands for this. It comes through in the work. To me, a great testament to that is that all the actors did great work, all the background actors did great work. She was able to transfer that energy of what she felt as a director and as a person about how valuable this was to all of us. There’s no way I was going to step on that set and not give 110% and not be totally invested and doing as much research as I could and just devoting myself to it.

What do you hope young people take away from the film?

I hope that young people can say, “You know what? I can do something to change the world. I’ve seen the strengths and some of the challenges for Dr. King and all those people in Selma and I have some of those same strengths and I have some of those same challenges and I can actually do my part to help improve the world.” We can go higher now. We’re gonna take this torch and keep going even more. That’s what I want.