Selma: Women’s Civil Rights Story

selma_6_posterOne of the lesser-known stories of the civil rights movement is how pivotal women were to the very beating heart of it.

The movement’s male leaders have been rightly celebrated, but many women campaigned with just as much zeal and courage – they marched, boycotted, sacrificed and provided key strategic ideas in equal step with their husbands, brothers and pastors, but often without public recognition.

Selma brings several real-life courageous women’s stories to the fore at last.

Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper  

Says Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper:  “The truth of the matter is that women were the backbone of the civil rights movement.  Behind every one of the men out there, this band of brothers, there was a woman.  There was Juanita Abernathy behind Ralph Abernathy, Coretta King behind Martin Luther King.  Everybody had somebody, whether a mother, aunt, wife or sister, who was there behind them as a force, saying, ‘We’re here. We’re standing with you,’ and that’s often not shown or seen.  But because we have the mighty Ava DuVernay as director, you really feel the presence of women in this film; and I think this is the first time a lot of people will know about women like Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper and Diane Nash.”

DuVernay says she felt an obligation to give credit where it too often has been ignored.  “I couldn’t imagine how you could tell this story and not do justice to what really happened, not do justice to women like Coretta Scott King, Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash, or Richie Jackson, the housewife who hosted these great leaders in her home.  It was unthinkable to tell the story without them.”

King’s Iconic Wife: Coretta Scott King

Among the powerful women audiences get to know in Selma is Dr. King’s likewise iconic wife, Coretta, who had a distinguished career of activism in her own right.   Taking the role is Carmen Ejogo – in her second turn as the character, having previously played Coretta in the 2001 HBO movie “Boycott,” about the bus boycotts of 1955.  Ejogo notes that Mrs. King changed a lot in the intervening years, having seen and endured unimaginable suffering, but also having become even more committed in her beliefs.

selma_2_oyelowo“I felt I was really dealing with a very different character,” she says.  “Her marriage to Martin and her life are in a very different state in Selma.  In 1955, they were just starting to be leaders of this movement, but in 1965 Coretta and Martin are deep in the trenches, really feeling the threat of violence and death as a potential on their horizons.  I think it was something very palpable to her, and as a result there was much more burden on her – and that was evident in how she conducted herself.  It’s quite interesting to have played her at a young stage in her life and have the chance to explore a weightier time 10 years later.”

Ejogo had a thrilling chance to meet Coretta during that first production (Mrs. King passed away in 2006), an invaluable experience she kept close.  “I was so grateful Coretta gave me her blessing then and I hope she would have given me the same for this one. She was a remarkable woman,” the actress recalls.  “I was moved to tears when I first met her because without saying a word she just had this stoicism about her.  Her presence had such grandeur that you couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by it. Eventually, I composed myself and got to know her as an incredibly warm, matriarchal figure, and I felt very fortunate.”

Ejogo looked for the full humanity of Coretta, who in 1965 is confronting not only the dangers to her family and the enormity of what the civil rights struggle is facing, but the hard knowledge of her husband’s affairs. “I think Coretta was forever the devoted wife, but what we explore in this film is the fact that internally there was a lot of struggle that she had to go through on many levels,” she says.  “This is the time when she walked through that struggle and decided to be by her husband’s side in a very visible way.”

She especially enjoyed embodying the historic moment when Coretta met privately with Malcolm X in Selma, just weeks before the controversial activist was killed – wherein a changed Malcolm X (played by Nigel Thatch) expressed interest in reconciling with Dr. King and working with the nonviolent movement.

But it was her rapport with Oyelowo that made the role so special.  She says they both were steeped in research. “I really appreciated the fact that he knew absolutely everything about Martin and a lot about Coretta,” she says. “He worked so hard to find the tempo, the melody and the rhythms of Martin that you couldn’t help but respond to that.  He was just a very generous person to work opposite.”

Winfrey takes the role of Annie Lee Cooper, who came to global notoriety when she confronted Sheriff Jim Clark’s violence while waiting in line yet again to register to vote.  To protect herself and others, the then 54 year-old Cooper delivered a right hook to the Sheriff, who was knocked to the ground in front of media cameras (before arising and arresting Cooper).  Today, there is an Annie Cooper Avenue in Selma to celebrate her resolve to vote in the face of such brutality.  (Cooper passed away at age 100 in 2010.)

Winfrey says she hesitated but could not resist playing a woman whose legend is not widely known.  “I got talked into doing Annie Lee Cooper,” she muses.  “I wasn’t sure I wanted to play her because Sofia in The Color Purple punches out a sheriff and Gloria in The Butler punches out her son. I thought, ‘Am I just doing punching roles?’  So I was a little reluctant – but “I was convinced to do Annie Lee Cooper because of the magnitude of the woman and the magnificence of what her courage meant to an entire movement.”

Jeremy Kleiner observes that Winfrey encapsulated the humility of that courage on screen.  “Even in just those few moments with the voting registrar, you get such a layered look at Annie,” he says.  “Oprah communicates both that sense of fatigue and an indefatigable sense of resilience in that one moment.”

Cooper’s place in history weighed on Winfrey.  “I wanted to do her justice, because although she’s a vital civil rights figure, many people don’t know her name.  It was her willingness to step up to keep trying to vote, not once, not twice or three times, but numerous times — and in the face of denial to keep standing up – that makes her so important.  I asked her former caretaker, ‘why do you think she hit the sheriff that day, knowing that might be a deadly move?’ And the caretaker said to me, ‘She just got tired of it.’”

Winfrey continues:  “And that’s really what I was trying to step into:  the place where that fatigue with the way things are has built up to a point that a person can no longer withstand it.  Faced with being deprived of your human rights, with being constantly put down, with having people look at you day in and day out and not see you as the human being that you are – after awhile it will either depress you or enrage you.  And in that moment Annie Lee Cooper was enraged, and it all came out.”

Another heroine of Selma is Amelia Boynton who was badly beaten during the first “Bloody Sunday” march.  Boynton’s activism went back to her childhood.  Born in 1911, she campaigned as a girl for suffrage, and registered to vote in 1934.  In 1964, she became the first African American woman to run for Congress in Alabama.  To play the role, the filmmakers chose Lorraine Touissant, the Trinidad-born, Brooklyn–raised actress known for her role on “Orange Is The New Black.”  Says Winfrey, “It’s exciting that this may be the first time many people outside the South will get to hear about Amelia Boynton.”

Eight-time Grammy-nominated recording artist and actress Ledisi Young is another contemporary star who steps into historic shoes, playing legendary “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson, a friend of Martin Luther King’s who sang haunting hymns at his “I Have a Dream” speech as well as his funeral.

Diane Nash

Also strongly involved in the marches was Diane Nash, then the wife of James Bevel and a founder of SNCC.  Known for her visible bravery, Nash led lunch counter protests, Freedom Rides, and began conducting non-violent actions in Alabama in 1963 following the Birmingham church bombing.  Tessa Thompson (recently seen in Dear White People), who takes the role, was awed by Nash’s grit.

“She was an incredibly courageous woman who became a leader when she was only a teenager.  At 20 she was able to make the U.S. Attorney General call and ask ‘who the hell is Diane Nash?’ because she was creating such a stir.  To me, she is a leader of the civil rights movement who remains painfully unsung.  So it was a pleasure to get to play her and in some small way contribute to people knowing more about her.”

Although Nash was often called “fearless,” Thompson believes she tempered her fear with determination.  “Fearless is a nice thing to be called, but it wasn’t the full truth.  At one sit-in Diane said she was struck with so much fear and she had to stop herself and say ‘if I am going to lead I have to move past this.’ And that’s the more incredible thing I think – when someone can take their fear on and say I want to be someone who tries to make this world a better place whatever it takes – that’s remarkable, and something I hope this movie reminds us of.”

Thompson also loved having the chance to work with Common in the role of James Bevel.  “Common is another member of this cast who is an incredibly unique talent,” she says. “ He has been such a socially aware rapper, such a role model.  And he was inspiring to work with as an actor, because he has a kind of childlike excitability.  He has such zest and curiosity, and that’s invigorating to be around.”

In playing Nash, Thompson came to deeply appreciate DuVernay’s attempt to enlarge the view of civil rights leaders.  “I think there is this notion among people now that these were trained and polished leaders in the 60s.  But after getting to know some of them, the truth is they were truly regular people. Some were preachers so they had an aptitude for public speaking, but they were just people who had a hard time standing still in the face of injustice.  It begs the question: if you were alive during that time, what side of history would you have been on?  Would you have been the person who says I am going to take a risk?  We all like to think we would but that takes a tremendous amount of faith and strength and guts.”