Selma: Interview with Director Ava DuVernay

For director 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 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 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, recognizing 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.”

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 realize 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, 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.”

DuVernay was also strengthened by 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 DuVernay’s determination and clarity. “Ava 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 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.”

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.  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 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 realized character,” he says.  “Still, my admiration for him only grew enormously the more I learned.”

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, Oyelowo knew he had to find his own voice and not merely echo King’s instantly recognizable 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.

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.”

DuVernay was moved by 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 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 – he’s a person of faith and he felt so strongly connected to the character. There was a kind of a serenity to David that was humble, yet at the same time full of conviction and confidence.”

Kleiner recalls one particular moment when 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’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 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 Oyelowo, 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, 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 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.