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Meet the people who are bringing Martin Luther King to life in "Selma"

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Bringing the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the big screen has been a dream of many filmmakers — and film fans — since the civil rights leader became a legend.

But those who were asked to make this dream a reality in Selma, which is still playing in a few theaters and will be out on DVD and digital platforms soon, were not names you would immediately leap to. Director Ava DuVernay had made two features before, including Middle of Nowhere, which won her a directing award at Sundance. Still, she had never worked on a film at the scale of Selma, even if it's modestly budgeted by studio standards.

Playing King is David Oyelowo, a British actor who may well become a star after viewers get a chance to see him in this film. But he, too, is not the first name most would think of for this part. Both DuVernay and Oyelowo spoke with us about the journey to getting Selma made and the sheer speed with which it was shot, edited, and delivered to theaters.

RELATED: Selma, reviewed

Ava DuVernay, director of Selma

Todd VanDerWerff: A lot of movies about famous people try to tell a big story, but it feels like you were very focused on the smaller moments, on people's faces and even the way they carried themselves. How did you arrive at that approach?

Ava DuVernay: That's where my interest lies, in human nature. I was much less interested in telling the story of an icon, a story of a myth. I really wanted to get to the man. So my whole charge in taking this on was about humanizing.

It showed itself in the cinematography, in my work with Bradford Young. A lot of profile. The way that we usually see King, with a camera right in his face, very much that public figure, I wanted that to be somewhat obscured. So a lot of profile, a lot of more obscured angles were used.

But then also in just trying to mine for the human nature in all the characters. King. Coretta. Little things like in the kitchen where he can't find the trash bags because he hasn't been home, and she knows which drawer it's in. It's always looking for those things in every single scene. No one that was making this was interested in telling a story about a guy who made a catchphrase, or a speech, or a statue, or a holiday, or a street name. We really wanted to get underneath this icon and demystify him.

Todd VanDerWerff: This is a project that people have either wanted Hollywood to do or that Hollywood has wanted to do for many, many years. Did you feel intimidated by that prospect?

Ava DuVernay: Yeah. I'm African-American, so Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looms up there with Jesus in my grandmother's house. To actually make a film about someone who looms so large in our cultural history, in our American history, in our international history, was a huge deal.

My way in was really simple: the film's called Selma, and my dad is from Lowndes County, which is five minutes from Selma. So every Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, summer vacation over the last 42 years has been in that part of the country. So I knew the textures, the sounds, the smells, the voices of that place really well, because the man I love the most is from there, my dad. So that really rang true for me.

Just focusing on that allowed me to sidestep the sheer terror that might have set in, doing a film about Dr. King, and I really focused on making a film called Selma and putting a man at the center who was the leader of this campaign, and really trying to step away from all the iconography of King and focusing on a man and a movement.

Todd VanDerWerff: You really focus on place in your narrative features. You like to look at the geographical and cultural circumstances these people live in. What did you take from the actual Selma that fed into the movie of Selma?

Ava DuVernay: The place is haunted by people that just two decades ago basically lived in a state-sanctioned terrorist state. If you were black in Lowndes County, Alabama, that place was known as "Bloody Lowndes." For crossing a white man, you would be killed. You could have your farm stolen from you. You could be humiliated. You could be injured at will with no recourse, no repercussions. That's where my father is from, and that's not the way it is now, but it's very much in living memory, that kind of atmosphere that's so violent and so toxic.

Those ghosts and that energy hangs in the air a bit there. It was really important that we shot all of those scenes on the real Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just to be technical and filmmaker-y, Alabama does not have a robust tax credit, so it was a hit to our humble budget to go to Alabama and be on that bridge, but it had to happen, because you know that there's something in the air there that would eventually be embedded in the image. I really believe that.

We fought to go back there, and were received with open arms by the people there in Selma. Which was a little bit of a surprise. I wasn't sure how they would react to a major motion picture coming in, but I think they also wanted to detoxify from a lot of what had gone on. We just found a real beautiful working environment there, and certainly all those ghosts that I speak of are there, and helped the actors, helped me, so much in getting the story told.

(Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films)

Todd VanDerWerff: When their story is not directly focused on Selma, characters seem to leave the story for the duration of time they're not in Selma, including Dr. King at one point. That's very different from how a lot of these historical dramas are told. How did you decide what to keep and what to leave out?

Ava DuVernay: I really just stayed true to the fact that this film is not called King. It's called Selma. And it's about the voting rights campaign in Selma in 1965. With that as my guide, as I did my rewrites, and as I was working with the material, and trying to decide when King was there and when he wasn't there, it was always very connected to the campaign.

Even the personal stuff with Coretta, as we deal with in the context of the marriage, I only bring in as they relate to the campaign. You first see them in the kitchen, and he's talking about leaving to go out on the campaign. When he comes back and a tape arrives, the tape arriving affects him not being there for a march, which affects the campaign.

Selma and the campaign was my guide, and by following that, I was able to keep a steady course. But it's unruly material. You could go any which way. You've got the legislative stuff that's happening. You've got the political stuff in the White House. You've got the grass roots stuff. You've got the marriage stuff, the personal stuff. So corralling all that with such a large ensemble was a challenge, so it makes me very happy that it's working for people.

Todd VanDerWerff: As much as you're tracing Dr. King's journey through this, you're also tracing President Johnson's evolution on this topic as well. Why did you want to include that political material, too?

Ava DuVernay: Ultimately, Johnson's signing the Voting Rights Act into law is the culmination of the film, so you have to track how that's happening. It would be disingenuous for him to pop up at the end and sign the bill.

As much as I want to deconstruct King, I want to deconstruct Johnson. I think there are real questions and real nuance around why he signed the act, how he was prompted to sign the act, the fact that he was prompted. We really have to scrutinize our heroes, and our champions. I would stop just short of saying Johnson was a champion. I think he was a willing participant in a movement that had momentum and that he was on the right side of history. But it certainly wasn't anything that he initiated.

This is part of our history as Americans. I think it's important that we know it, especially in this cultural moment, with so much unrest, so much questioning, so much social action happening around issues of injustice and dignity, that we know truly what happened then, so that we might allow it to guide us in the moment we're in now.

Todd VanDerWerff: You've come out of the world of independent film, and you've applied that lens to a studio film with a small but still larger budget. What did you learn from your early features that prepared you to make this?

Ava DuVernay: We shot Selma in 32 days, which is just 13 more days than I had to shoot Middle of Nowhere. $20 million to make a film — a period film, with large set pieces and horses and tear gas and two state capitols and churches filled with people and marches filled with people and such a big cast — it goes quickly. So really, oddly, I felt like I was making an indie. I never had enough time. I never had enough money.

But I was saying, when you're used to making films on two dollars and a paper clip, you just get it done. There was no way that anyone was going to tell me it couldn't be done on $20 million. I know that previous directors had balked at that number, but I think that just having made films for nothing before, I knew that this was more than I'd ever had.

So just that kind of gusto around really not being so tied to the monetary figure, and knowing that creatively we could get around it, was the number one thing that I took from my indie work into this. There was no problem that I thought couldn't be handled. Most of the time in Hollywood on the big budget stuff, you have a problem, you throw money at it. But as indies, you got a problem, you gotta figure it out, because there ain't no money. I brought that attitude into the film with me, and it all worked out.

(Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films)

Todd VanDerWerff: The film has a big-name producer in Oprah Winfrey, and she actually stars in the film. What was the process of getting her to star in the movie like?

Ava DuVernay: She didn't want to star in the film. She wanted to support and produce the film. When we were first able to have her sign on as a producer, I thought we were going to be the beautiful beneficiaries of her name, and what a great thing that her name and who she is would attract attention to the film. I really had no idea that I was in store for such a guide, such a visionary, such a champion, such a defender of me. Because of her, the film that you see is my final cut. And that is rare for a woman in this business, for a black person in this business, really for anyone in this business to get final cut. She made it so, because she said that it would happen, and she made everyone keep their promise that it would happen. And it happened.

She was very much on board to be the producer, and to be that champion, but the acting not so much. She had to be convinced. She made me ask her four times. She didn't ever come out and straight say no, but she was being nice. She did not want to do it, until I happened across this article about the real woman, Annie Lee Cooper, and thank God, in the article, this woman had turned 100 years old, and the local paper had done a little piece on her. They asked her what she does every day, and she said that she sat out on her porch and visited with her friends, and at about 2 o'clock, she went inside and watched the Oprah Winfrey Show. So I forwarded that to her with some stupid note, [affects maudlin voice] "Wouldn't she be happy if you..." And she said yes.

It was a little emotional blackmail!

Todd VanDerWerff: How did you fill some of these other roles? It can be so hard to find people to play icons.

Ava DuVernay: It wasn't even that. It was also just because we weren't paying anybody anything. It was really just the strength of the subject matter, of the time. Most of the non-black actors had no idea who I was or what I could do. I had just made the two indie films before that, very small. David is the most beautiful actor I've ever seen or met or worked with, but he's no Denzel Washington in terms of name and attracting talent. It was really a matter of asking people to come to it with their heart and with their passion, and the people you see in the movie are the people who answered the call.

They're also character actors that I love, love, love. I'd seen Andre Holland, who plays Andrew Young, in 42, and was, like, "Who is that?" I loved Ruben Santiago-Hudson forever on the stage. I'd go to New York and see him forever. I might be, oddly, a black girl from Compton, the biggest Tim Roth fan. The biggest Tim Roth fan. So it was really just reaching out to actors who I loved. You know, Giovanni Ribisi, it was just all my favorites. And nine out of 10 of them said yes. So it was really lucky.

Todd VanDerWerff: This movie has enormous relevance to the events of 2014 and everything since Selma. What did you learn from making this movie about affecting political change in the world around us?

Ava DuVernay: There's a strategy and organization that needs to be applied. Whatever the idea is, whether it's non-violent, whether it's something more aggressive, the only really truly successful movements have been those that have had some organization around them. And that doesn't mean a leader, per se, or leaders, but that means some operating tactics, some mission, some steps to get to a certain end.

I think it's beautiful what happened in the summer, these spontaneous protests and spontaneous gathering of people in the streets around Ferguson. But the great thing now, when the Eric Garner tragedy happens, and [the police officer] is not indicted, when Garner's strangulation is captured on tape, I felt like the protests became much more organized. There were certain groups that were heading things up. There were things happening simultaneously in different cities. The protests were much more targeted toward certain locations, certain places. There's this people-led movement that's happening now.

I think it's fantastic. We're in a very robust, very rich cultural moment. I was speaking with Bernice King, Dr. King's daughter, on the weekend, and she was saying she can't recall a time in recent American history where there's been this outpouring of unrest and people amplifying their voices since the Vietnam War. And that's amazing, if true. Certainly for me, it feels like I've never been in a time like this.

I think Dr. King would be right there marching with folks in Ferguson and New York over Eric Garner and Mike Brown. I think this is what we're called to do, is raise our voices. The power of the people is really showing itself.

David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma

Todd VanDerWerff: As an actor, when you're going to play someone who's been in the public eye, where people have an idea of who that person was, where do you start in building that as a character?

David Oyelowo: There is a blessing and a curse in that. The blessing is that people know who he is, and so therefore, there is an interest. So you're making a film that hopefully people want to see. It's also that people know him, and think they know him, but what you've got to do is go and find the version of him that they don't know.

That's what we tried to do with Dr. King, because there's no point perpetuating notions that people have about him already, and just ticking those boxes. You've got to go and find what it is that is revelatory about the man, and that's really what we set out to do with the film.

(Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films)

Todd VanDerWerff: What were some things you found out in your research about Dr. King that you were really surprised by?

David Oyelowo: One of the things I was surprised by, and I think the audience is going to be when they see the film, is just how heavily this calling of his weighed upon him. It was incredibly costly to him emotionally, physically. When he died, it is said that he had the heart of a man twice his age. People often forget that Dr. King was 39 years old when he was assassinated. You see him, and he always feels like a much more mature man. I truly believe that's because, as I say, of the burden and the expectation that weighed upon him.

I think that in the film, you see that played out. You see that this is not someone who had all the answers at any given time. He was always weighing up the way to go, because he really cared about the people he was lobbying for. I think also the guilt he carried for those who were hurt, those who were killed, during the Selma campaign, even though the methodology was to go in somewhere like Selma, where there was inherent and undeniable racism, shake the hornets' nest, so to speak, and make the people who were racists act out on camera, and have that amplify the message to the nation and the president. But it meant that in advocating that, people were going to get hurt. And that is something that he was deeply unhappy about.

Todd VanDerWerff: What do you feel that you got from filming in the geographical location where these events took place?

David Oyelowo: A lot! Our job as storytellers is to find the truth. So often what happens is that a film set in Atlanta, you actually shoot in Vancouver. You shoot anywhere but the place the film is actually set. What was so amazing for me in playing Dr. King was shooting a lot of the film in Atlanta, where he's from, where people knew him, where you can still feel the spirit of him in the air.

To shoot on the actual bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, underneath the name of the man who was the head of the Ku Klux Klan. A lot of people don't know that about Edmund Pettus, that he was the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. To re-enact those events on that very bridge, with some of the same people who marched that march. The march was just under 50 years ago, so people who are now in their 60s and 70s were on that bridge, and we used a lot of locals as extras in that march. To have the actual people there, all you're having to do is be, rather than do, as an actor. To give the last speech in the movie in the very same spot that Dr. King gave that speech in front of the Capitol steps. All of those things are invaluable for trying to tell the truth about those events.

Todd VanDerWerff: You're British. A lot of people from the United Kingdom have come over to the US and done great work playing famous Americans. Most recently, you have Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, for instance. When you're looking into a famous person in the history of another country, do you think that gives you unique insight?

David Oyelowo: I don't think it gives you more insight, but it does give you more curiosity. It certainly means that you don't take anything for granted in terms of going to find that character. There's nothing about Dr. King's interior life that I could say, "Oh, yeah, my uncle marched with him," or "My grandmother says she knew him." A lot of the things that I find a lot of African-Americans are able to say. Everyone seems to have some kind of familial or distant connection to him in some way. An uncle of theirs saw him give a speech in California one time, or they were in a service his brother gave.

There's so many people I speak to who have some kind of connection, and I think if I were an American, maybe that would have meant I would be a little less fastidious in my pursuit of finding out who the actual man was. I have no connection to him whatsoever, and so therefore, I need to find everything I can out about him. And I know that certainly helped me.

Todd VanDerWerff: You've mentioned how your Christianity played into this, since Dr. King was also a Christian. How did you find that connection between your two faiths?

David Oyelowo: I think undeniably for him, a lot of who he was, what he said, and how he did what he did stemmed from his faith. Turning the other cheek, or nonviolence, or love in the face of hatred and injustice are all things that you find in the Bible, and of course, that's what he preached from the pulpit. But what's so brilliant about him is he didn't just talk about it, preach it; he lived it and did it. He ended up, not unlike Jesus, giving his life for this cause.

For me, as a Christian myself, those are all attributes I hugely admire that he exhibited. When I first read the script, I felt God tell me that I was going to play this role, and the only way I could even contemplate or entertain that idea is to play him as a man. I wouldn't cast me in this role — a British guy, who, certainly when I first read this script, had done very few American films or played pretty much no American characters at that stage.

So for me, this journey has very much been a divine one, one that is further illustrated by the films I did in the run-up to this: Lincoln, The Butler, Red Tails, The Help — all films that take a look at what it has been to be a black person in this country in the last 150 years. All of those experiences helped me and went into this destiny moment for me, I felt, of playing Dr. King.

Todd VanDerWerff: What do you like about working with Ava DuVernay, since you've worked with her a couple of times now?

David Oyelowo: She's not scared of silence. She's not scared of diving into the more gristly [pretty sure he says gristly] side of what it is to be a human being. She's very interested in humanity, not just the surface or things that are superficial. When I had worked with her on Middle of Nowhere, I just felt she was a perfect candidate for Selma, really.

Like I said before, if we were doing a film that simply perpetuates the myth of Dr. King, then I don't think that's going to do anything for the audience. At the end of the day, we go to the movies to see ourselves. We need to see ourselves in Dr. King. We need to see his frailty, his vulnerability, his lack of surety, and the fact that even though he had all of these attributes, he did this incredible thing anyway. She's so good at that. She's so good at revealing the humanity within human beings.

(Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films)

Todd VanDerWerff: This filmed very quickly, compared to comparable productions. What was it like to close this out in just over a month?

David Oyelowo: One of the reasons why I never limit myself to just studio movies, why I love to do independent films, why I love to do plays, why I love to do radio, why I love to do all these different mediums, is it keeps you fit. It keeps you nimble. You are able to oscillate between different ways of storytelling. So it meant that when a film like this, despite the size and the nature of the character, comes along, and you've got to bang it out in 32 days, that means that I'm not intimidated by it. Middle of Nowhere that I did with Ava, we did in 19 days.

That doesn't intimidate me. It's definitely challenging, but you just have to up your preparation. The great thing about what I do for a living is that when everyone agrees on what it is we're trying to do, especially under the gaze of a great captain, you just have to find a way to do it. Not only did we shoot it in 32 days, but we wrapped the film less than six months ago. It's almost unheard of to have a film come out within the same year that you shot it, but that's the case with Selma.

Todd VanDerWerff: Were there moments within the film where you felt it was going to take a lot out of you, or moments you were a little nervous about approaching?

David Oyelowo: Inevitably. We all know Dr. King for his incredible oration. I'm not scared about public speaking, but of course, when you are aware you're going to be being compared to one of the greatest orators of all time, that gives you pause for thought.

One of the things that was most tricky for me was the day on which we were going to be doing these speeches in the church, Congressman John Lewis came to visit and sat in the front row. There's no way of saying to Congressman John Lewis, "Uhhhh... you know what? That's a little scary for me. Do you mind not sitting there?" And thank the Lord, an unforecast thunderstorm began, which meant that we couldn't shoot, because there was risk of lightning hitting the generator, so by the time we actually came back to shoot those scenes after the storm had passed, he had to leave. And I have to say, that again was divine intervention.

Todd VanDerWerff: One of the major themes of this film is the split between the public and private faces of Dr. King. What did you find out about the private side of the man that you were interested in?

David Oyelowo: As shown in the film, even though he was a man of words, he wasn't always full of surety. You see that in a scene I have with Ralph Abernathy, as played beautifully by Colman Domingo. You can see that he was surrounded by people who at times needed to encourage him, needed to pull him out of his own malaise. You also see that in a scene between Dr. King and John Lewis, where this younger man reminds Dr. King of who he is and what he stands for by quoting him to him.

These are, I think, as I said earlier, revelatory things about King. He didn't have it all together. He was a great listener. He was a leader, but he surrounded himself with leaders whom he could defer to, whom he could listen to. But he also had this brilliant quality of taking the best bits of everything everyone had to say and distilling them into an articulate argument toward people like the president or the press.

So that's what I found about him by talking to Andrew Young, who knew him very well. He talked about King the prankster, King the family man, the friend. Those were all things I tried to inject into my performance.

Todd VanDerWerff: This movie has a great political resonance with what's going on in the country right now. What did you learn from this film about how to change society in positive ways?

David Oyelowo: I learnt — and I hope that anyone who sees the film, especially all of us who are protesting, and I think rightly so, against some of the things that are going on in this country at the moment — it takes more than just being angry. It takes being intelligent. It takes being compassionate. Love is always the way. The minute you fight hate with hate, you become a self-fulfilling prophecy of why hate and injustice is being used anyway. A lot of the time as black people, what is happening is that there is an inherent fear of us as being criminal and deserving of heavy-handedness, police aggression. And if you fight aggression with aggression, it perpetuates this lie.

What you see in Selma, I think, is tactics. They saw what the obstacle was, and they approached it intelligently. Unfortunately for us, the tactics that worked in Selma wouldn't work now. In the sense that what happened in Selma is that they made sure the cameras were rolling while racist people committed heinous crimes against humanity, and that moved the country to cajole the president to change the law, and it worked. Well, we now have Eric Garner who is murdered on camera, indisputably, by a chokehold that is illegal, and there is no indictment. The forces of injustice have matured, so the tactics to combat them also have to mature.


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