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‘Selma’ Marches Into Oscar Race With Buzzing Debut

Martin Luther King drama receives standing ovation at AFI Festival in Hollywood

The civil rights drama “Selma” had a special premiere at AFI Fest on Tuesday night, and the response was ecstatic. Focusing on the march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., the film has long been eyed as the drama that could potentially shake up the Oscar race—a prediction that now seems a certainty. “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, will likely earn a best picture nomination and David Oyelowo has a good shot at breaking into the crowded lead actor race. And DuVernay could very well make history as the first female African-American nominee for director.

Originally, Paramount planned to unveil 30 minutes of footage from “Selma” in a presentation at AFI Fest, before it was revealed Sunday night in a Twitter exchange between DuVernay and actress-producer Oprah Winfrey that the whole film would screen.

The historical drama received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, followed by a Q&A moderated by Alfre Woodard with DuVernay, Oyelowo and Winfrey, along with actor Common. Also present were producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner of Plan B Entertainment, also produced “12 Years a Slave,” which Woodard appeared in. One of the biggest laughs came when Winfrey asked, “Plan B — does the ‘B’ stand for ‘black’?”

Just last Sunday, Oyelowo attended Variety’s Actors on Actors Studio and there was a discussion about all the different ways people have pronounced his name. (It’s Oh-yellow-oh.) With his searing, honest turn in “Selma,” people are soon going to know it by heart. The British thesp is having a great year, currently on screen in “Interstellar” and also appearing in a supporting role in “A Most Violent Year,” which opened AFI Fest last week. But he is front and center in the role of a lifetime in “Selma,” and delivers. While he nails King’s cadence and mannerisms, the performance transcends mere imitation, presenting an honest portrait of a complex man.

Oyelowo has always been an outstanding actor, and often raises the material with his performances. He was the best thing about “The Paperboy” and deserved an Oscar nom last year for his role in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Playing the son of Winfrey and Forest Whitaker, Oyelowo took what could have been a thankless role — his character is there to show the changing times for each decade — and truly stood out in the ensemble.

Is Oyelowo a lock for a lead actor nomination? It’s too close to call. The logic has long been that there are four spots set: Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”). Oyelowo could unseat one of these “sure things” or he could certainly take the fifth slot — though there are many others vying for it, including some who have yet to be seen. Right now the big question marks seems to be Jack O’Connell in the upcoming “Unbroken” and Bradley Cooper, whose “American Sniper” also had a sneak premiere immediately following “Selma” on Tuesday night. But Oyelowo’s powerful performance will be hard to bet against, and my guess is he’ll land his first nod.

He is guided with an assured hand by DuVernay, who previously worked with Oyelowo on the acclaimed 2012 indie “Middle of Nowhere.” It’s no surprise DuVernay expertly handles the intimate scenes, as she’s done so well previously, but she also stages large crowd scenes and set pieces with flair, and shows meticulous detail to the period setting.

In the director race, there are several names being bandied about, but few sure things. There are the critical faves like Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Birdman”). There are directors of pics with a lot of buzz like Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) and James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”). There are the beloved vets like Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper”), David Fincher (“Gone Girl”) and Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”). And then there are big question marks around the films yet to be seen — namely, Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.” Amongst this group, DuVernay is not only deserving, but an exciting entry.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said that DuVernay could become the first African-American nominee for director. She would be the first female African-American director nominated. John Singleton received a nom in 1991 for “Boyz n’ the Hood”

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