Selma, director Ava DuVernay’s much-anticipated film about the 1965 marches that led to the Voting Rights Act, hits theaters in selected cities Christmas Day and goes nationwide Jan. 9. DuVernay, who became the first black female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination, utilizes a cast of award-winning stars and up-and-coming actors to portray the civil rights movement’s most iconic figures. British actor David Oyelowo, who also earned a Golden Globe nod, will likely become a household name after his breakout performance as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Here’s a look at the heroes of Selma and the actors who portray them in the movie.
Oyelowo joins a stellar list of actors who have played the iconic civil rights leader, including James Earl Jones, Jeffrey Wright, LeVar Burton and Paul Winfield. Oyelowo’s Golden Globe nomination for best actor puts him right in the middle of the Oscar conversation.
In what has to be an incredibly rare feat, Ejogo plays Scott King for the second time in her blossoming career. Ejogo—who, like her co-star Oyelowo, was born in the United Kingdom—played Scott King in HBO’s 2011 miniseries Boycott, which centered on the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, 10 years before the events in Selma. “I can’t think of many actors who have had the chance to play the same historical character twice at different stages in their life,” Ejogo said in an interview with Los Angeles Confidential magazine. “That felt really interesting to me.”
It was Jackson’s death at the hands of a state trooper that provided the catalyst for the Selma-to-Montgomery march. On the night of Feb. 18, 1965, Jackson—along with his mother and grandfather—was part of a peaceful protest in Marion, Ala., that had been organized over the arrest of civil rights worker James Orange. When state troopers began beating protesters with billy clubs, Jackson—who was unarmed—was shot by state Trooper James Fowler while trying to protect his mother. Jackson would later die on Feb. 26. It took 45 years to bring Fowler to justice, and he would serve only five months of a six-month sentence for second-degree manslaughter.
Stanfield has appeared in a number of short films and is also slated to play Snoop Dogg in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton.
Bevel was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the architect of the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala.—a key moment in civil rights history that gave the world those iconic images of children being hosed down and attacked by police dogs. After four little girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, he became one of the key organizers of the Selma voting-rights movement. It was Bevel who suggested a march from Selma to Montgomery, after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, to take their grievances directly to Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
Common not only performs in the film but joined John Legend for the song “Glory,” which is featured in the movie.
Nash, who met her future husband, James Bevel, while leading the sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Nash, who was as outspoken and passionate as her then-husband, would carve out an essential role in the male-dominated civil rights movement.
Thompson recently had a breakout role in the indie darling Dear White People.
Cooper became famous simply for trying to register to vote. The Dallas County, Ala., Courthouse was often the scene of confrontations between the bigoted Sheriff James G. Clark and African Americans attempting to register to vote. When Clark pushed Cooper in the back of her neck with a billy club, the stout 54-year-old woman spun around and clocked him in the jaw with a right hook. She was arrested and held for 11 hours. She would eventually register to vote. It’s easy to see why Winfrey—who is also a producer of the film—was perfect for this role, especially when you consider that famous scene in The Color Purple.
Orange, a Birmingham native, was project coordinator for the SCLC, whose primary role was recruiting young people into the movement. Orange’s arrest in February 1965 for disorderly conduct and contributing to the delinquency of minors—he had used students as part of the voter-registration drives in Alabama—was the event that prompted the protest that led to the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Dorsey, who’s had a number of roles on television, was last seen on the big screen in Django Unchained.
Abernathy was a minister and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest friends and was often side by side with King during key moments in the civil rights movement, including the Selma marches. They often shared jail cells and hotel rooms, including Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where King was assassinated.
Domingo played White House maître d’ Freddie Fallows in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Vivian was a minister and close friend of MLK. As a member of the SCLC, he helped organize voter-registration drives at the Dallas County Courthouse in Alabama, which often turned confrontational with police. Footage captures Vivian at the courthouse facing down Sheriff James Clark and his deputies as he proclaimed, “We’re willing to be beaten for democracy!”
Reynolds is probably best known for his role as a cop on TNT’s The Closer.
Young was the executive director of the SCLC and a close aide to Martin Luther King Jr. He was also a strategist and negotiator during the Selma movement. He later went on to become the mayor of Atlanta and an ambassador to the United Nations.
Holland recently had a breakout role in the Steven Soderbergh-created Showtime series The Knick.
The outspoken executive secretary of SNCC was sometimes at odds with the slow, incremental approach taken by MLK and the SCLC. While King and others waited in Selma for a court decision to provide protection for the march, Forman and other SNCC members went directly to Montgomery, where they were confronted by state troopers. After one such confrontation, Forman gave one of his most memorable speeches, in which he declared, “If we can’t sit at the table, let’s knock the f—king legs off.”
As for Byers, expect to see more of him on Fox’s new drama, Empire, which premieres Jan. 7.
Gray, whom Martin Luther King Jr. described as “the chief counsel for the protest movement,” was an attorney who worked tirelessly to defend key figures in the movement, including Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks. He also represented the men who were victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In 1965 he filed a class action suit, Williams v. Wallace, that resulted in a U.S. district court ordering Alabama Gov. George Wallace to provide protection for the marchers as they walked from Selma to Montgomery.
It was recently announced that Gooding would play O.J. Simpson in an upcoming TV series.
The streetwise and fiery Williams—whom MLK once called his “wild man”—was a member of the SCLC and a World War II vet who, shortly after arriving home and while still in uniform, was nearly beaten to death by whites when he tried to drink from a water fountain at a segregated bus stop. On March 7, 1965, a day that will forever be known as Bloody Sunday, he stood next to SNCC Chairman John Lewis as they led 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward a blockade of Alabama state troopers, who had been ordered by Gov. George Wallace to stop the march. When the marchers refused to disperse, troopers began to viciously beat and teargas the protesters. The images of brutality were beamed around the world—scenes so embarrassing that President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to urge Congress to pass voting-rights legislation. The class action suit seeking protection for the marchers, Williams v. Wallace, bears his name.
Pierce has most recently been seen in the Showtime series Ray Donovan.
Lewis came to Selma on March 7 even though the organization he chaired, the SNCC, had chosen not to participate. By the time Bloody Sunday was over, Lewis had been beaten unconscious and suffered a skull fracture. Less than a week later, he would testify at a federal hearing. Since 1986 Lewis has represented the state of Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is one of the most respected liberal voices in the country.
James has appeared in several TV series and played Gabby Douglas’ brother John in The Gabby Douglas Story.
It was a photograph of Boynton, lying unconscious and near death after being beaten and gassed by state troopers on Bloody Sunday, that became one of the lasting images of that horrific afternoon. The events of that day would lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and Robinson would witness the signing of the bill by President Lyndon Johnson as his guest of honor.
Toussaint has most recently been seen as Yvonne “Vee” Parker on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
The 39-year-old Detroit mother of five, who was a member of the NAACP, was horrified by the violent attacks on protesters, so she came to Selma to walk in the four-day, 54-mile march that began on March 21. While Liuzzo was transporting marchers back to Selma, a car full of Ku Klux Klan members tried to drive her off the road. Eventually they pulled alongside her and shot her in head, killing her instantly. She remains the only white woman to die in the civil rights movement.
Ochs has appeared in a number of TV series, including Single Ladies.