Selma: Making of Civil Rights Movement Picture

selma_2_oyelowoAva DuVernay’s Selma, one of the most significant films of the year, brings the power of all the forces responsible for creating the hard-won moment of long awaited justice to cinema with an uncompromising immediacy.

In spring of 1965, a series of dramatic events changed the course of America and the modern concept of civil rights forever.  Courageous marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., attempted three times to carry out a peaceful procession from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama on a quest for the basic human right to vote.   The shocking confrontations, the triumphant final march and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that followed are now an indelible part of history.  But the vitally relevant, vitally human story of Selma – from the political battles in the halls of power to the grit and faith of people on the street to the private, inner struggles Dr. King faced – has never been seen on the movie screen.

The film chronicles a string of astonishing historical details, large and small — including the intense, adversarial relationship between Dr. King and President Lyndon Johnson, the troubling involvement of the FBI and the unbreakable spirit of ordinary men and women who sacrificed and united around voting rights.   But what emerged from these stark details is a vivid tapestry of an American turning point in the making and the stirring journey of a man finding his way through doubts and daunting obstacles towards not just leadership but the togetherness required to make real change in the world.

Says DuVernay, a quintessential independent director whose family hails from Alabama:  “Selma is a story about voice, the voice of a great leader; the voice of a community that triumphs despite turmoil; and the voice of a nation striving to grow into a better society.  I hope the film reminds us that all voices are valuable and worthy of being heard.”

Given the remarkable fact that no major motion picture to date has focused on any aspect of the life of Dr. King, nor on the voting rights movement, DuVernay felt there was a burning need for this story to be told.  At the same time, she wanted to strip away the veneer of an untouchable icon and bring Dr. King to life as a flesh-and-blood man – a man with flaws and uncertainties but also with a fortitude and fire that was bolstered by the striving of people around him.

“I do find it surprising and worthy of conversation that, in the 50 years since Dr. King’s death, there has never been a feature film focusing on him as the protagonist.  That’s a jaw-dropper,” says the director.  “It’s kind of strange and unfortunate, but I am glad we are here now.”

While Dr. King’s story is central to Selma, DuVernay expands the story outward to the men and women, who played crucial roles in building, sustaining and carrying forward the movement.  She wanted to lay bare not just these seminal events but also the rich personal dynamics behind those events.

“We tend to think of King as a statue, or a speech, or a holiday, but he was a man, a man who had complicated relationships, who was very human, and a man who died at the age of 39 fighting for freedoms we all enjoy.  I think when you deconstruct the myth of him, you realize that his inner strength is something that all of us have.  If we could just tap into it, we could do great things,” DuVernay explains.

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 utilized 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 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 Oyelowo worked with DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere he intuitively felt 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 Oyelowo, the fact that 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 Oyelowo encountered DuVernay, he also got to know 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.”

Winfrey ultimately could not resist the opportunity to help DuVernay and 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,” 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 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 DuVernay, 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 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.  Summarizes 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?”