It seems you can’t have a conversation with anyone involved in the making of Selma – the dramatization of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – without them attributing its existence to the result of a Higher Power at work.
Take, for example, this Providential anecdote from Mark Friedberg, the film's Production Designer, that he shared during my on-location set visit this past June. It was the day they were shooting Dr. King’s famous speech from the steps of the Montgomery capitol (which closes the film), and Friedberg was reflecting on how he wasn't happy with the podium being used as King's lectern. "So we put the lectern up there," Friedberg said, pointing to the capitol steps, "and… I didn't like it. I wrinkled my nose, and I couldn't figure out why. It occurred to me it shouldn't be a lectern. It should be a pulpit." So Friedberg and his crew walked one-hundred feet to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and talked with Reverend Cromwell Handy to see what they may have. Handy smiled, telling Friedberg that just two days prior not only had they discovered the church's old pulpit deep in the corners of the storage basement but that "it should be up there because that is the pulpit Dr. King delivered his speech from 50 years ago." Stunned by how his "random" artistic inspiration led to the actual pulpit Dr. King stood behind for this very speech, Friedberg said they all just looked at each other, smiling with the realization that there was a force at work "clearly bigger than any of us."
For actor David Oyelowo (pronounced Oy-yellow-o), the relative unknown who portrays Dr. King, he has seen God's hand at work since he first read the script nearly eight years ago in July of 2007. After reading it, he says during our phone conversation, "I felt God tell me that I was going to play Dr. King – and in Selma. Unfortunately," he adds, chuckling, "the director at the time didn't agree with me." Raised a Baptist who, as he specifies, "became a born-again Christian when I was sixteen," Oyelowo is no stranger to listening for God's voice. “There was something that I just couldn’t shake once I had read that script,” he recalls, “and then I just had that knowing. I know that Voice. I know God's voice in my life, and I just couldn’t shake it from that point on."
The project, however, shook several directors as it languished and sputtered in development for almost a decade. As helmers, producers, actors, and collaborators came and went, the one constant was Oyelowo. "In the interim," he says, "I had done a movie with Ava called Middle of Nowhere." Ava is Ava DuVernay, a former publicist turned filmmaker who's few features had been microbudget indies. Their collaboration showed Oyelowo that he'd finally found the right director for Selma. "I knew that in order to play King well, it has to be less about the icon and more about the man. No one does it better than (Ava), so I started lobbying for her."
That lobbying was with producer Oprah Winfrey, who had taken on the project after playing Oyelowo's mother in 2013's Lee Daniels’ The Butler. "It was brought to me on a silver platter," DuVernay says of the movie with a $20 million budget. "My film before this was a $200,000 film. The film before that was $50,000, the film before that was $10,000. Most of them I paid for on my own. I got the job because of David. David was pitching me." Oyelowo's praise for her is passionate. "She's so brilliant at humanity," he says, "at getting to the core of who we are as human beings. I've worked with some great directors (Steven Spielberg among them), and no one does it quite as good as she does."
"It was a situation of someone looking out for me," DuVernay says of Oyelowo, "in a way that I wasn't looking out for myself. I never would’ve pictured even being able to do it. I didn’t even know how to do it. It took every bit of prayer, down on my knees, asking 'How do I do this?' to try and get it done." And upon more reflection, DuVernay can't get past the sense of Providence herself. "It's nothing that I sought. In some ways it sought me, and I'm so glad that it did."
Once she had it, DuVernay knew this biopic needed to be different from ones of the past. "I'd been somewhat allergic to black historical dramas, I felt a distance from them. It’s not my favorite category of film,” she confesses, “but there’s something about this story.” She took it to the most intimate place of King’s life, namely his infidelities which, out of reverence, are often avoided. “I think when we talk about Dr. King,” DuVernay says, “we put him on a pedestal. We put him in stone, make him a statue. His marches, his speeches, he’s this icon. But he was just a regular guy, a 39-year-old guy when he was killed. What I did not want to do is keep him as this mythological figure. I wanted him to be a real man, so we show his flaws. He wasn’t a saint. We all have flaws,” she adds, frankly, “no one's perfect. If you really love him – which I do, I love Dr. King – you love all of him. So my hope is that people accept him as who he really was. Don’t homogenize him, don’t paint him over. Let him be who he was and let him stand in what he did.”
Oyelowo agrees. “They had challenges in their marriage,” he says, “and I think to give Dr. King dimension, to make him a human being, is to truly dive into just how extraordinary it was what he accomplished. In terms of being fallible, being human, to see ourselves in Dr. King and Coretta is a wonderful thing, and hopefully informs how we go out into the world and live our own flawed lives. And," Oyelowo adds, now thinking of the unheralded local organizers, “I think that it actually makes the achievement of not just him but the movement more impressive when you see that they were just like you and I."
The contributions of these grassroots activists was the other major element largely missing from the original script that DuVernay enhanced and fleshed out in her uncredited rewrite. "It's not an MLK biopic. This is looking at a three-month time in his life when this extraordinary campaign happened." To bring emphasis to that campaign, DuVernay wanted to depict the machinations of the Civil Rights Movement, and bring attention to the activists who were working in Selma long before King joined their efforts. “It’s not just King’s story. It’s the people all around him, all the foot soldiers,” she says, becoming passionate. “Anyone who marched, anyone who left their jobs, anyone who put their life at risk, anyone who did anything around that movement. What I’m trying to communicate is that anyone, no matter where you are, what you do, where you come from, you can change the world. These were regular people,” she stresses, “ordinary people. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Ordinary people can change the world through hope, love. Through action.”
Oyelowo shared this passion. “I think one of the things the film does beautifully is that it shows he didn’t do it alone. No leader,” Oyelowo emphasizes, “can affect change on their own. And what I think was incredible about Dr. King was that he was a leader of leaders. He was humble enough to hear everyone’s point of view, but what he was incredible at was distilling that into an articulate thought that was actionable.” The film depicts this, Oyelowo says, by showing their meetings and debates at length. “We see how strategy was a part of the Selma campaign. We see how brilliant they were, how it was very thought through. You couldn’t just operate out of your emotions or anger or bitterness. That doesn’t get anyone anywhere.”
One of those foot soldiers was Reverend Hosea Williams, played by veteran character actor Wendell Pierce, most famous for his role in HBO’s The Wire. Due to the nature of who he portrayed, combined with his own Catholic upbringing, Pierce couldn’t help but see this movement in spiritual terms. "Slavery, Jim Crow, that was America's original sin," Pierce says, quickly becoming philosophical between scenes on set. "How do you deal with your own original sin? You repent. You reform. You don’t shy away from it. So this movement was dealing with America's original sin."
It’s why, Pierce believes, these events drew ministers of various races and Christian denominations. "The thing that was amazing about the involvement of clergy,” Pierce says, “was not only showing the hypocrisy of America and challenging the nation, but challenging Christians also. The combination of the two: understanding what political advocacy could do with nonviolence, then understanding that they were men and women of faith, trying to appeal to the hearts of other men and women of faith. You couldn't get a better display of the American aesthetic and American values than The Civil Rights Movement. Freedom. Equality. Christian values."
"And within a two-hour film," Oyelowo says, "to show how hurt and pain can then lead to a strategy, and then lead to an action that leads to a result – which actually happened – that's powerful." Then, briefly reflecting on the film's unexpected significance in light of recent racially-based protests and riots from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City, events that began to dominate news headlines about a month after the film wrapped production, Oyelowo concludes, "I think their story is a very relevant example for the days we're living in." DuVernay adds, "It's really showing that this is on a continuum. Whatever you think about these things politically, it’s about the voice of people. As Americans, we're allowed to speak our peace, and when we're not allowed to do that, that’s when frustrations happen and tensions arise. So I really hope this film is a conversation starter."
Pierce, too, was haunted the day following their recreation of Bloody Sunday, the most violent event of the Selma campaign in which Alabama police beat, injured, and killed civil protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. "Yesterday was so hard for me," says Pierce, choking up. "It was our last day in Selma and all I could think about was the many souls that were in that Alabama river, of the generations that lost their life that didn't have a big production around them. They were on their own, and fearful, at the time of their death. There's blood on that ballot box. They sought the voting rights that they should've had as American citizens, yet those people died for it." But what unified the actors on both sides of this harrowing re-enactment was a spiritual solidarity. "Just before we started," Pierce recalls, "one of the actors said a prayer, and he said we're going to do this for all the people that fought for this, and then he said 'Lord, I want you to lift up Stan today (Stan Houston, the actor playing racist Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who spearheaded the violent response), for Stan to go to that ugly place of humanity. Lord, know that we are lifting him up.'" Pierce catches his emotions, then continues. "And Stan just broke down. He was so shocked by the love of the company that day; it touched him to no end. And that’s what this movie’s about."
The thirty-days-plus shoot was filled with these kinds of moments. "Every day's emotional. Every day we have a moment," DuVernay said, right before shooting the final speech at the capitol. "People are having moments all around. Things are hitting them based on their own history, their own legacies, families. It's just a lot, and it's been really miraculous and beautiful."
For Oyelowo, the miracle started in taking a spiritual leap into his craft that he'd never taken before. "I decided that I had to take a gamble," he says. "I did all the research I could, talked to everyone, read everything, and then I decided to open myself up spiritually, and not know what was going to happen. It served me hugely, personally, being a Christian," Oyelowo adds, "because of course that was a big part of who he was, it was central to his calling. It was important for me to be spiritually available."
Harkening back to how he said God had called him to this role, I asked Oyelowo if it felt as if, given the challenges the project went through for so many years, if all of that turmoil was just God setting this aside for him when the time was right. "You know," Oyelowo says, his thoughts beginning to churn as he considers this possibility, "I've never described it as something that God put aside for me but I guess He did in a way. There could've been, there should've been – I don't understand why there haven't been – films centered around Dr. King in the almost 50 years since he was assassinated. He's been in movies peripherally. And I'm not a movie star. There are several other actors who would be higher up the list of playing him rather than me. And yet seven-and-a-half years ago I did feel called, and there were several times it looked like it wasn't going to happen, but ultimately God was faithful to that calling, to that whisper that I felt. And I think between the nature of the films I've done in the lead-up to Selma – whether it's Lincoln, The Help, Red Tails, or The Butler – all of which touch on the subjects that Selma touches on, combined with this incredible timing of the film coming out, a time where we have some of the most robust protests we've seen in this country for decades, well… it just shows me, anyway, that God had a plan all along."
Jeffrey Huston is a freelance writer from Tulsa, OK. The comments cited here were taken from his on-set interviews, phone conversations, and official film press conference Q&As.
Publication date: January 12, 2015