Ava DuVernay wasn’t the first choice to direct Selma, a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and the events leading up to his five-day Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery. (The film opens in theaters on Christmas Day.) That was Stephen Frears, who ultimately left the project. She wasn’t the second, third, or fourth choice, either. The most recent was Lee Daniels, who had the wisdom to cast David Oyelowo as Dr. King, but eventually opted out himself, choosing instead to direct Lee Daniels’ The Butler. DuVernay only came into the picture after Oyelowo, who had a supporting role in her 2012 Sundance favorite Middle Of Nowhere, lobbied on her behalf, convincing producers that she could make the leap from a $200,000 independent film to a $20 million studio production. And now that Selma is finally finished and coming to theaters this Christmas, she seems like the only person who could have directed it.
DuVernay came up through the Hollywood system as a publicist, working for Fox and other public-relations outfits before starting her own agency, The DuVernay Agency (later DVA Media + Marketing) in 1999. She’s likened the experience of staging Selma’s big setpieces to managing a star-studded red-carpet event, but don’t be fooled by her modesty. No less a talent scout than Roger Ebert, who championed future greats like Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris from their embryonic beginnings, singled out DuVernay’s shoestring 2011 debut feature, I Will Follow, as “one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of loved one.” Middle Of Nowhere followed the next year, making DuVernay the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance. (Expect many more firsts of that nature as Selma makes its way out into the world.)
For his part, the British Oyelowo (who almost never works in his native accent) has been having a breakout year. Having scored small roles the last couple of years in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Lincoln, Middle Of Nowhere, and The Butler, Oyelowo has made strong impressions this year as a school principal in Interstellar and as a New York district attorney eager to crack down on the corrupt heating-oil business in A Most Violent Year. As King, he humanizes an iconic figure, revealing him as a complicated man behind closed doors—both in his shortcomings as a husband, and in his savvy political wrangling with Lyndon B. Johnson.
DuVernay did a complete (though uncredited) rewrite of Paul Webb’s original screenplay, shifting the emphasis away from Johnson and more toward King—which took some creativity, since the King family did not grant access to his speeches. She also dealt with a reduced budget and a shorter shoot.
The evening before The Dissolve interviewed DuVernay and Oyelowo, protests broke out in New York City over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for the choking death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island. DuVernay and Oyelowo talked to The Dissolve about how the past depicted in Selma speaks to the present, and how they captured a piece of history so freighted with significance.
The Dissolve: What about this project interested you most? When you came on as a director and re-wrote the script, what did you want to emphasize?
Ava DuVernay: I just wanted to make him a man. He’s just so iconic. Most people only know “I Have A Dream.” They don’t even know what his real speaking voice is like. They only even know his speech voice. They know he’s married to Coretta [Scott King], but they don’t know that he died at 39. They don’t know that he liked to have a Newport now and then with his homies. He was just a brother from Atlanta who fell in love with a sister at Boston University, and got swept up in the movement. I just think there’s a poignancy to his life that really amplifies his greatness when you realize he was an ordinary man who did great things. The question then was, “How do you show the ordinary-man parts so you can really amplify the greatness?” There’s something about seeing the process of greatness that I think really punctuates what’s wonderful about someone. That was the goal. It was about taking what was there—which was really a mano-a-mano with King and Lyndon B. Johnson, tilted toward Johnson—and first of all saying, “Well, that tilt can’t happen, I’m not doing that.” And then, it was about asking, “How do we flesh it out and really get to what this man was about?”
The Dissolve: One of the things that’s exciting about the movie—and it’s true of Lincoln as well—is that you’ve taken someone so iconic and principled, and shown how he’s also politically savvy. He understands how activism can apply pressure toward specific political ends.
DuVernay: Oh, good! Most people think his non-violent status was purely because of his faith as a pastor, but so much of it was strategic. “We don’t have tanks. We don’t have guns. We don’t have these things.” Then what do you do? It was that as well as faith, as well as tragedy, as well as constantly creatively thinking about how to push the movement forward. That stuff’s fascinating. The fact that he’s been homogenized to, like, four words is criminal. And that there’s not been a major motion picture with King at the center ever released in theaters, ever! This was just a huge opportunity given to me by David, and I just tried to get underneath the layers.
The Dissolve [to Oyelowo]: You were with this project before the script changed. What did that mean for your role, when the project shifted to Ava?
David Oyelowo: As Ava says, the focus was more on Johnson. King was definitely, to put it in base terms, the second lead. It was more a sort of back-and-forth between those two. There was very little attention paid to the movement, i.e. the others, who in a very real way participated alongside King in the summer campaign. Coretta was basically a phone call that happened [in the original script], and there was no face time between them. There were none of these moments which I really cherish, and are the moments that truly humanize him, for instance the moment with Ralph Abernathy in the jail, where he voices doubt about whether they should carry on. There’s the scene with his wife where they get that tape [revealing King’s extramarital indiscretions], and he has to answer some very difficult questions. There’s the scene with John Lewis where it looks like the campaign is going to fall apart, and it takes this young man to sort of cheer him on to continue.
These are all things we don’t associate with Martin Luther King. He is a leader. He is a visionary. He is an orator. He is all of those forward-thinking, thrusting, propulsive things, but that’s not what you and I deal with from day to day. We deal with guilt. We deal with doubt. We deal with the fact that we are floored. These were all elements that weren’t there in this authentic, integrated way until Ava came along and re-wrote Paul Webb’s script. One of the greatest gifts for me was that we couldn’t use the actual speeches, because we didn’t have the rights to them. What Ava did in rewriting the speeches… It was such a wonderful thing for me to not have the weight of the actual speeches, with people having to compare and contrast. It also meant we had speeches that we could truly integrate into the narrative. We didn’t have to add anything that wasn’t moving the story forward. These were all elements that allowed me as an actor to humanize Dr. King. I truly believe that’s more satisfying for the audience—and more satisfying for me, to make it a film where people can see the universal themes. Not political gobbledygook, but, “What would I do in this situation?”
The Dissolve [to DuVernay]: You were working at a much higher budget level than you’ve had before. But for a studio production, it was still limited. Did that inform how you conceived the film? One of the great things about the film is that it has the quality of a chamber piece. Beyond the marches, the larger scenes, it has an intimacy. Did the budget inform that?
DuVernay: Absolutely. The script I inherited was maybe a $35, $40 million film. We had $20 million. My producing partner, a man named Paul Garnes, is a Chicago native. He loves this town. When I was in Atlanta, he was the one who really gave me the parameters of what was possible—like, “You can have three speeches. And you can have two marches.” We really backed into it in an independent-filmmaker way. With my first movie, I could only afford a house. The story could not leave that house, because we had no money for anything beyond that. So we backed into that, and the writing was around these key pieces. Paul designated, “If we’re going to make this for $20 million, this [budget] is what we need to stay within.” And it did start to inform—not the scope, because it was always Selma—but really being able to lean into scenes that were more intimate, and just needed rooms because they alleviated the budget, and they also achieved what we wanted to do narratively, so we really just embraced those. Most people know I went from a $200,000 film to a $20 million film, and they only concentrate on, “Oh, you’ve got a lot of money,” but when you really think about historical dramas… $20 million for 500 people in period pre-fit costumes, horses, tear gas, shutting down two state capitals in Alabama and Georgia. Plus this guy [points to Oyelowo] cost a pretty penny. [Laughs.] I paid him in hugs. I paid him in hugs every day.
The Dissolve [to Oyelowo]: You’ve worked with Ava twice now. How would you describe her way of working with actors in comparison with some of the other directors you’ve worked with?
Oyelowo: Firstly, she’s a wonderful human being. I’d say that whether she was here or not. That goes a long way when you’re storytelling, especially when you’re telling human stories. She is someone—regardless of whether we’re doing Middle Of Nowhere or Selma—who really takes time to make people feel comfortable, despite the fact that both times, we were really gunning it to get the film done. There’s a humanity about her that I think creeps into her films, and it creeps into how she approaches character. For me, that’s the job. I truly believe we go to the movies, we go to theaters, to see ourselves projected back to us.
She’s a great student of what it is to be a human being. You can have a conversation with her about that, and it’ll be articulate and understandable, and that also leads to implementation. You can do what she says, because she’s able to talk to you on a level that makes it attainable. Sometimes you work with directors who will give you very base, one-word direction. It’s undoable. Help me, help me get there. I also find personally… I can’t speak for every actor Ava has worked with, but there’s something chemically, spiritually there that means she has the key to things in me that I didn’t necessarily know were in there. She has a way of revealing elements of myself to me as a performer, and that’s happened both times I've worked with her. My answer is very selfish, in a sense. I can only speak for me, but there’s a connection there that I really treasure, because I know it’s special.
The Dissolve [to DuVernay]: This is also your second collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young, who’s really good, and whose name has been popping up everywhere lately. [Young also shot Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, as well as A Most Violent Year, due out in late December. —ed.] How did the two of you settle on a strategy about you wanted the film to look?
DuVernay: I brought him some Kodachrome images from 1965 that I really loved because of the density of the contrast, but it had this really soft fall off on the edges that I thought captured some of the contradictions in the story that we were telling. That’s nerd stuff. But yeah, the thing about Bradford is, he’s rigorous about the image, so there’s never a time where he just throws up the camera, even when we’re running and gunning, because we both come from the indie world. The thing I loved about him is that he interrogates each and every setup. He looks at each and every image and tries to figure out how to make it better. He asks, “How does it relate to what we’re doing here?” That’s rare to find with a director of photography, each and every time we move an angle. We had a nerdy collaboration around the images, and he just has a real love for black people, a real respect for our skin tone. Bradford shoots black people like no one else. It’s challenging to keep all those skin tones in that scene where all the brothers go into Richie Jean [Jackson’s] kitchen, when they’re first coming to her house and introducing themselves. You look at the spectrum of black skin tones in that, in a scene where there are no lights, just a little bit of fill—it doesn’t look like there are any lights there. You have Common, who is very light, next to Omar Dorsey, who is very dark, and [Young] is keeping all of that in the play. Even in the scene with the tape, and Coretta, who’s just lit by one lamp, and [Oyelowo] sitting there, completely different skin tone, other side of the room—he knows to balance it. The care taken in photographing the black and brown body in cinema has been lacking, and you have someone like Bradford Young, who’s a part of a really small tribe of people who’ve tried to interrogate that and do something special, so I am fortunate to call him my DP. I’m jealous that David’s worked with him on three films, and I’ve only worked with him on two. He’s a young master.
The Dissolve: The pressure to tell this story right must have been immense from the people who were there. And then you have pressure from the studio as well. How much consultation did you have with King’s supporters at the time? And were there occasions where you had to make choices that were right for the film, and put the rest away?
DuVernay: Well, the studio was lovely. I’m proud to say that’s my final cut you see on the screen, and that’s because of Oprah’s advocacy, and the protection around making that so. The people I really homed in on were John Lewis and Andrew Young. I really cared the most about what they thought. Lewis was on one side of [King], and Young was on the other side of him this whole campaign. They’re living. They’re here. They can talk to you. They are still active. I mean, John Lewis is still in Congress. Ambassador Young took a lot of time with me. He would call me every Sunday, and just say, “Just checking in.” At first, I’d say, “I can show you this.” And he’d say, “No, I don’t want to see anything. Just letting you know I’m here if you need anything.” They gave David some access to some very rare footage. Lewis was just so lovely, and just saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, and wept through the whole thing. He talked to me and said, “I thought I’d need just one Kleenex, but I used the whole box.” We can say from the outside what we thought it was, through our family members who were and weren’t there—what they wanted to be—but what was it? Those guys knew. And they were really generous in helping us get there.
The Dissolve: For King in the film, the city of Selma feels like stepping into the lion’s den. What did it feel like to shoot there in 2014? What kind of scrutiny did you get from the locals?
DuVernay: I was a little nervous about what we would get going into Alabama, but it was nothing there but open arms and love. I mean, they’ve had productions go through that they weren’t happy with in the past, and a little bit of that residue was there. But really, when I look back, they’re super-savvy about production. That small town has hosted every president that’s been in office since this all happened. Huge people come through that town all the time. For a sleepy town in the middle of Alabama, they host that jubilee every year where there’s thousands of people coming in. These events are emotional to them, but it’s already such a part of the DNA of that place. It’s celebrated and honored constantly. That said, we were standing in the same place where King walked, and where people bled. It really did something chemically to the work on those days.
Oyelowo: Yeah. It’s steeped in history. To be walking on the bridge where these horrific things happened—the actual bridge—with some of the actual people who did the march on a bridge that was named after a man who was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan years and years ago… The acting goes out the window, and you’re just in the process of being at that stage, because there’s just so many things coming together for the act of truth-telling, in a sense.
The Dissolve: Did that involve a certain amount of imagination on your part? These are historical images we’ve seen. But you’ve got to be in the moment in that time. How do you get to that place?
Oyelowo: That’s what I mean, in a sense. A lot of the work is done for you. It’s the actual bridge. I gave the last speech in the film from the actual exact same spot that Dr. King did, at the exact same pulpit he did it from. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist church literally found it two days before we needed it to shoot the scene. As an actor, a lot of time is spent blocking out the artifice of filmmaking. You’re trying to block out the camera. You’re trying to block out the monitor. You’re trying to block out the raft of crew behind. But with this, you almost have to snap out of the fact that you weren’t actually there. Selma is economically quite depressed, and it hasn’t changed much from the time it happened. A lot of the time, I was looking around, and going, “This is eerie, how like the documentary footage it still is.” At that point, hopefully you’ve done your work and it’s just about being present.
The Dissolve: The resonances between past and present are strong. They were always going to be strong in terms of the Voting Rights Act being gutted in 2013. But in light of the recent deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner… How do you see the past and present communicating?
DuVernay: I feel like these events are echoing through history and bouncing off each other. We’re so hurt about Eric Garner, and it’s all we could talk about this morning amongst ourselves. If there’s anything I hope Selma is right now, it’s an illustration of a vicious cycle. I think what it can do is really serve as a clarion, a reminder that this keeps happening. I think the activism—the reaction to what’s happening now—is different than a continuum of previous activism. If you know this is part of a long lineage of voices speaking out against injustice, if you look at the tactics used now, and you update them and move them forward, instead of always starting from a base place of, “Let’s walk out into the street…” We’ve got to progress so we’re moving from one movement to the next to the next, or else the same thing will continue to happen. So that’s my hope for what Selma can do in this cultural moment. Just ask people to look back, gather that information, really know what has already been done, so we can do more, so we don’t have to start again. The events will always continue. We have to admit that this is in the world, and it’s going to be like this. The question is, what do we do? Because we cannot keep doing the same thing. We have to move a step beyond what we did last time, so hopefully Selma is a reminder of a really successful last time. Now what? I don’t know. That’s as much as I can put together today.
The Dissolve: King offered that focal point. There’s no one like that right now.
DuVernay: I think that was a leader-based movement that really was about galvanizing people. I think there’s a place where we talk about next steps, and how we progress. But this could be a people-led movement. There isn’t one person, and maybe that isn’t bad. We’re in a digital age, and we can call out to the world without the help of the press or a Voice piece. I can tweet right now to Sri Lanka. I can talk to anyone. I think that there are new ways, and we need to examine how to move beyond what’s already been done. Maybe the fact that there isn’t one person to rally around isn’t disastrous. There’s something else we haven’t connected to.