Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is as quintessentially American a story as any in the history of the United States, but many attempts at immortalizing his life and times have come up short. At the recent Urbanworld Film Festival, director Ava Duvernay and actor David Oyelowo discussed how the highly-anticipated film Selma came about with a roomful of journalists, industry insiders and well-wishers. The film, produced by Oprah Winfrey in conjunction with Brad Pitts’ Plan B production company, is slated for a Christmas Day release. This is significant considering the rarity of a film starring a predominantly Black cast and helmed by a Black director being given such a highly coveted opening day.
“In July of 2007 a script called Selma hit my mailbox. I read it. I was in a time of prayer,” Oyelowo, who stars as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “And God told me on the 24th of July ‘07 I would play Martin Luther King, Jr in the film. That was a very weird thing to happen. I’m a British actor, I was fresh off the boat and had done nothing of note in Hollywood. I wrote it down in my prayer diary because it was so bizarre. The director at the time didn’t agree with God. Three years later, director Lee Daniels did agree with God and cast me in Selma. But we couldn’t get the film off the ground. I went on to do the film The Paper Boy with him, then The Butler and he (eventually) felt that he had done his civil rights film. In the interim, I had done a beautiful film called Middle of Nowhere. I was just blasted by (Ava Duvernay’s) talent, by her writing and by her ability as a director, by her humanity and her ability to mine actors for their humanity.”
“The first name that was interested in the script was Steven Spielberg. Then, it came to Stephen Frears, then Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, Michael Mann at one point, but (Brad Pitt’s company) Plan B was already on it after reading the original draft of the script,” he continued. “We were really struggling to get this film off the ground. This was pre-"12 Years a Slave", pre-"The Butler", pre-"Fruitvale Station", pre-"Mandela", pre-what just happened in the last twelve months. What we were constantly getting was ‘Black doesn’t travel’ and people didn’t want to see Black protagonists. They weren't really saying that, but that’s what they meant. But what you suddenly had was four films with Black characters and with Black actors at the center of their story. Both "The Butler" and "12 Years a Slave" went on to make 200 million dollars each, but this was pre-that.”
According to David Oyelowo, the script for Selma went through a period in which there was great uncertainty regarding whether or not the film would ever be made after Lee Daniels’ decided he no longer wanted to be a part of the project. It was at that point the British actor decided to do some recruiting of his own.
“I went to the producers of Selma and said ‘Look, I know you guys are looking for a certain thing. But, I met somebody who unequivocally has to direct this movie.’ It took a little bit of convincing, but they had their come to Jesus moment and we went on to make the film.”
As you may have already realized, that someone was independent film director Ava Duvernay. A burgeoning wunderkind who started her own PR firm fresh out of UCLA. Eventually, she would segue into her current role as a director with 'This is the Life' and 'My Mic Sounds Nice', followed by the semi-biographical I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, which earned her the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I had gone on record and said that studios were preoccupied with seeing Black people in hindsight,” said the refreshingly candid Duvernay. “So, I was always talking about ‘Contemporary images of Black people. That’s what I do’, because that is what I do. Right off, when we talked about it, it wasn’t something I was jumping up and down about. I think I’ve been somewhat allergic to Black historical dramas in the past. In general, I feel a distance from them in some ways. When I’m watching, I feel distant from what’s happening. It’s just not my favorite form. It’s just not my favorite category of film. But this is not a biopic. This is not a cradle to the grave film on King. This is looking at a three month timeframe in his life when an extraordinary campaign happened in the course of American history. It’s just fascinating. It’s rife with everything you want as a storyteller. Everything you want as a Black woman, everything you should want as a human being of any hue. So, I just got into this story in particular and just let all my politics about what I like and don’t like in cinema kind of fall away and just focus on this really beautiful story that David brought my way, and I was immediately able to just get inside of it and became really passionate about it.”
Though the addition of Ava injected new life into the languishing project, there were still problems that needed to be overcome. Problems that were insurmountable to all but a goliath.
“Ava was already doing brilliant work rewriting Paul Webb’s script, but there was still a logjam. In the meantime, Oprah decided that I should play Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She had seen an audition tape and it became her obsession. I get a phone call from her while she was on David Geffen’s boat about how we were get this off the ground and I said ‘Would you do the honor of being a producer on this film?’ and she said ‘Producer? What does that mean?’ And I said ‘I need you by my side for this journey’ and she said ‘Okay!’ and that was how we got on this road to getting this film made.”
Duvernay concurred with Oyelowo wholeheartedly.
“In this film, the velocity with which it started to move forward, you can pinpoint it to the moment she came onboard,” said Duvernay of Oprah. “It was moving forward with a fresh director who was looking to move it forward on a small budget because I’m used to making movies with two cents and a paper clip. But it was really Oprah who came onboard and was there throughout the process every day. I thought ‘Oprah’s going to put her name on the movie and go be on David Geffen’s boat’, but she calls, texts, sits in meetings about everything from the minutia of the insurance, hair color, whatever I’m thinking about she’s available to us. Things we weren’t thinking about she was bringing up. She is just so present and a really hands on producer.”
Though Oyelowo was somewhat reflective and somber recalling his role as the civil rights icon, Duvernay radiated positive energy and gratitude in reflecting on her conversations with Selma producer Oprah Winfrey.
I’d say ‘God, I feel like you’ve done this before’ and she’d say ‘Naw, this is my first time. Doing pretty good, huh?’ I see it in my mind like I’m walking through a really dense jungle and she’s just ahead of me with a machete just hacking away so I can follow behind her. That’s really what this has been. She’s really been fantastic. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
After the discussion, Ava and David screened the first official trailers for Selma. Oyelowo was on the screen as Dr. King for no more than ten minutes. However, the collective audience was seated in brief silence after the lights came back on. They had all witnessed Oyelowo literally become Dr. King. In fact, it was the most complete King transformation that I had personally ever seen on the big screen. Just from this small smattering of material it’s easy to see why onlookers believe that an Oscar nomination in some category is imminent for this film. In addition to Oyelowo, Selma also stars Lorraine Toussaint, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Cuba Gooding Jr and a menagerie of highly-skilled thespians giving their very best on a project of great artistic and historic merit.
Selma opens in theaters nationwide on December 25.