Selma’s Director Wants Audience to See the Real MLK

More than the myth and statue of Martin Luther King Jr., director Ava DuVernay wants the film’s audience to see the “badass” brother behind the legend.

Director Ava DuVernay
Director Ava DuVernay Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

One of the most pivotal periods in civil rights history is finally coming to the big screen. Selma, depicting Martin Luther King Jr.’s voting-rights campaign and the weeks of bloody protests in Selma, Ala., opens Christmas Day. The movie could not be timelier, with current civil rights leaders steeped in a continuing fight over voting rights.

Oprah Winfrey is one of the producers, British actor David Oyelowo stars as King and Ava DuVernay directs.The director told The Root on the red carpet at the Urbanworld Film Festival, “We made it with an elevated sense of responsibility.” The film was more than seven years in the making, with several big Hollywood directors and stars circling around it at one point or another.

DuVernay said, “It’s odd and jaw-dropping to me that in the 50 years since these events happened, there has not been a major Hollywood film about him.” Another King-related film, Memphis, has also been kicking around Hollywood for a while. One of the hurdles faced by films portraying King over the years reportedly has been a desire by his estate to protect his image.

While Selma is still being edited, at the festival The Root got a sneak peek, along with the cast, crew and a select few. What we saw were two moving scenes in which King explains the reasoning behind his demonstration tactics and marches to the Selma courthouse to protest slow voter registration. In person, Oyelowo only resembles King in stature and ethnicity. As DuVernay jokingly said, King was a “short black guy.” But on-screen he oozes King, from his speech patterns to his nuanced facial expressions.

Oyelowo, who is deeply religious, said that he transformed himself into King for the role by gaining weight and shaving back his hairline. “At one point,” he told the audience, “I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t see myself … Dr. King was staring back to me.” It was clear the role took a personal toll on Oyelowo, who broke down in tears after seeing himself as King for the first time.

He told The Root, “It’s very costly emotionally, physically, spiritually. You cannot go into an endeavor like this without going there. King felt a lot of guilt about the people who were cut down because of the movement and the cost on his children, his wife. So you have to go there, and I can proudly say I went there.”

Oyelowo was originally cast as King in 2007 by Lee Daniels, who was set to direct with Brad Pitt’s company producing, but that production hit a financing wall. “People don’t want to see black protagonists. They weren’t necessarily saying that, but that’s what they meant,” said Oyelowo, who went on to star in Red Tails and DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, as well as play Forest Whitaker’s eldest son in Daniels’ The Butler. However, the actor never let go of Selma, and in 2013, DuVernay came on board and started to do rewrites of the script. But the film still needed a heavy hitter, so Oyelowo asked his Butler “mother,” Oprah, to be a producer.

She became obsessed with the movie, said Oyelowo. DuVernay added that there were some dismal times and Oprah got them through it. In her mind, the director said of Oprah, “I’m walking through a dense jungle and she’s in front of me with a machete just hacking away so I can follow her.”

DuVernay is known for her small, independent, character-driven films and won best director at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere. She had stayed away from Hollywood movies until now in part, she said, because “studio films were preoccupied with seeing black people in hindsight.”