Return to 'Selma': Ava DuVernay makes history with drama of Martin Luther King's civil-rights march

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One thing director Ava DuVernay wants to make clear about Selma: It will not be "medicine-y." A vivid account of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Selma is the opposite of the staid, stodgy historical style mainstream Hollywood loves.

"How do you do a civil-rights movie that hasn't already been done?" DuVernay asks. "And how do you interest people who don't really like them? Our approach was to try to get underneath, to find the blood and pulp of the story."

Paul Webb's script for Selma had been in development for years, with several directors and stars attached at different stages. When British actor David Oyelowo read it in 2007, he campaigned to win the part of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Oyelowo's persistence finally paid off when director Lee Daniels cast him as King. When Daniels departed from the project, Oyelowo told producers to consider DuVernay. The actor had just finished working with her and cinematographer Bradford Young on a $200,000 indie film called Middle of Nowhere.

One of the towering figures of the 20th century, King was a brilliant orator, a shrewd politician, and a dynamic leader—a daunting figure to portray in a movie. "This is a man who did extraordinary things, but there's also his ego, his fear, guilt, infidelity," DuVernay says. "As opposed to the holiday, the speech, the statue, we had to try to get underneath and find the guy, deconstruct the icon."

DuVernay's first step was to rewrite the screenplay. "It had been very focused on LBJ and King, a mano-a-mano thing between the two," she tells a preview audience after a screening in New York. "I was like, 'Okay, what's Coretta doing? What's happening over there with Amelia Boynton and Annie Lee Cooper and Richie Jean Jackson?' After all, this film is called Selma, not King."

While deconstructing King and his colleagues, DuVernay and her crew were also trying to deconstruct the historical-epic genre. Selma gives voice to people who are infrequently heard, if at all, in movies. The director worked in first-hand accounts of the events surrounding the march, and included some demonstrators in the cast.

DuVernay and Young studied newsreel footage and period photographs, selecting a color palette steeped in "the red clay and milky tones you see when you look back at Kodachrome pictures of 1965." Plus, the director knows the South intimately. Her father grew up in Lowndes County, midway between Selma and Montgomery, and her family still lives near the Alabama capital. She knows what it's like to "sit in a Southern church, to look up at a preacher who's really in the moment."

As a result, Selma has a documentary realism that immerses viewers in King's struggles. The movie still includes his encounters with President Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson), as well as Johnson's arguments with Alabama Governor George Wallace (a pitch-perfect Tim Roth). In addition, DuVernay details the internal struggles between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The internal squabbles give viewers an insight into how politics played out on a personal level.

But the heart of Selma is the march itself, in particular the "Bloody Sunday" encounter with authorities as the demonstrators try to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. According to DuVernay, no newsreel or television camera was on the bridge during the attack. "The only camera that got anything was at the base of the bridge looking up. In the movie you see a little bit of newsreel, but what actually happened on the bridge itself had to be pieced together."

In the middle of her last day of post-production before locking down the DCP, DuVernay agrees to take a few minutes off to talk about her movie by phone. She describes Selma as a "fast shoot—32 days total, two days on the bridge. I think over the course of the production we had maybe 4,000 extras, which includes all the church scenes and the five marches."

The director did not seek the approval of the King estate. "We sent them a copy of the script as a courtesy," she says, "but this is an independent film, conceived independently of the estate." As a result, she had to rephrase King's speeches, the dramatic highpoints of the movie.

Remarkably, DuVernay captured most of the speeches in two takes, using just three cameras. "We would move them twice to different positions, so we had basically six different shots to work with," she explains. "You can't keep all those extras still and motivated for a long time. We actually did two of the speeches, the funeral speech and the 'Give us the vote' speech, in one day."

Young, who also shot A Most Violent Year, is in DuVernay's words "a phenom, a master. He lights black skin so it glows, and he knows how to light all shades. You have Omar Dorsey as James Orange, he's a beautiful onyx color, standing next to Diane Nash [played by Tessa Thompson], whose skin is almost transparent, and he lights them so you can see them both—that's not easy."

DuVernay praises Oyelowo, whose focus and intensity make the speeches especially powerful. "He's in full control of his emotional territory. He is not a guy who's going to be spent after two or three takes," she says, laughing with admiration. "He's pretty much a machine, like the Terminator."

Oyelowo inhabited his character so fully that some of the cast and crew didn't find out he was British until after shooting. But for DuVernay, the actor's achievement goes much deeper than an impersonation, no matter how clever.

"Our core was always, 'the man, the man, the man.' Always trying to get underneath to bits of human behavior. David shows a myriad of emotions from stoic to fiery, but also what's in between. We ran up our phone bills during the six months of prep talking over every scene, every instant, whether a look or a camera move or just a nuanced way to say a line. Always asking ourselves, 'What are we doing here? How do we show the man?' As opposed to King as just a leader, which in a way was the easy part."

The first scene DuVernay shot finds King and his best friend Ralph Abernathy (played by Colman Domingo) sitting in a Selma jail cell. They lean in close to talk, their heads framed by light from a window. King is facing a turning point in his campaign, and needs reassurance from Abernathy.

"I have a problem with the way jail scenes are shot," DuVernay confesses. "They're always brightly lit, it's like, 'Wow, that jail's lovely.' But this is a dank jail in a small town in the South. It's a place where there is supposed to be no hope. The beauty of that scene is these men trying to find hope within that place."

DuVernay explains her collaboration with Young and the actors for capturing the moment. "I'll say, 'Let's put a camera down here,' you get the actors in and you're trying to get that little rim of light, they sit down and you discover something, you move them around and play with it. Luckily David loves that stuff, making sure we're not just telling a story but composing a powerful image as well. He and Colman worked together before, they were in Lee Daniels' The Butler and they played the two black soldiers at the beginning of Lincoln, so they came in firing on all cylinders."

The intensity and focus of the scene crystallizes the challenges King faced. The style is forceful and persuasive, but not aggressive or preachy, much like the director herself.

DuVernay admits Selma was a "jump in scope" from her previous movies. But by choosing cast and crew carefully, "people with the right intentions and the right energy," she surrounded herself with artists fully committed to the project. She even persuaded Oprah Winfrey to take the part of Annie Lee Cooper, a working woman denied the right to vote through unfair polling tests.

The director calls Winfrey, also a producer on Selma, "my protector, my cheerleader, my defender, my biggest advocate. The film that you see would not have been made if it was not for her. She put us on her back and carried us over the finish line. And you need to hear her jump on a call with the insurance company when they're questioning our numbers and say, 'This is Oprah Winfrey, do you have any questions I can answer?'"

Events have caught up to Selma, giving the Paramount release an eerie timeliness. But in DuVernay's opinion, true racial equality is an ongoing battle. For her, the state of emergency in Ferguson, Missouri isn't a current event, "it's part of a continuum. This problem hasn't stopped and started again, it's an ongoing assault on human rights, on the rights of people of color in this country. Looking at it in the present, you're hunkered down in individual details. Take a macro approach, and you see that this is something that has been going on for decades now. And it's not only here, this is happening around the world, in Hong Kong, Mexico, wherever."

DuVernay still finds reason to hope. “You know when King and the marchers finally reached Montgomery, Wallace wouldn't let them stand on the marble steps in front of the capitol building. They had to stand on a platform surrounded by troopers. And yet fifty years later my father could roll by after his night shift and see that his daughter had closed the streets of the capital to make this movie. He had tears, he said it was one of the proudest moments of his life."