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AFI Fest: David Oyelowo Says ‘Selma’ Debut ‘Feels Timely and Very Necessary’

The “Selma” cast and crew traveled a long road to get to the AFI Fest premiere of the historical film. The drama, which focuses on a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, took seven years to come to the screen, after finally being picked up by Paramount and exec produced by Oprah Winfrey.

It chronicles the true story of a series of 1965 marches that took place in Selma, Ala., led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists — including Selma residents — in order to gain voting rights. As the activists were attempting to cross a bridge and walk to the Montgomery courthouse, they were met with brutality and opposition from state and local police. Because of the severe injuries the marchers sustained, the day was dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”

Star David Oyelowo, who portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said he felt a huge sense of responsibility in delivering his role.

“He’s not just anyone,” Oyelowo told Variety of Dr. King. “I would argue that he’s probably the most important figure of the 20th century in America. Hopefully, I stepped up to it.”

Oyelowo, who is originally from London, said when it comes to selecting a good role, he looks for complexity and a strong storyline, to which he said “Selma” had both.

“I just look toward [historical films] because they are films that are meaningful and have great characters,” Oyelowo said, adding, “It feels very timely and very necessary,” before noting that he first read the “Selma” screenplay in 2007. It was only after working on Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” that he reached out to Winfrey to bring it to the screen. At a panel following the screening, Winfrey said that she and Oyelowo became “fast friends” and he soon introduced her to the “Selma” project.

Director and co-writer Ava DuVernay also attended the premiere. Niecy Nash, who appears in the movie, said DuVernay was the ideal person to helm this film. “I’m so grateful that it ended up in Ava’s hands because she’s absolutely brilliant,” Nash said. “She’s grace under fire, she’s a gentle spirit and she’s warm.”

The cast also includes Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth and “Dear White People’s” Tessa Thompson.

Though the film focuses on a historical moment, many said that the story still resonates today.

Common, who is known for his socially conscious raps and has spoken out about the events in Ferguson that took place in August (he wrote “Selma’s” end credit song with John Legend while the demonstrations were taking place), said younger audiences will be able to relate to this film.

“It awakens the fact that before you lived there were people that provided for you,” Common told Variety. “It’s just a reminder that your life has purpose, and someone in their 20s or teens can see what they do in their lives can really help improve the world.”

Thompson highlighted the fact that many of the leaders portrayed in the film stood tall in the face of oppression and racism while they were still college students and young adults.

Many scenes from the film were shot on location in Selma, Montgomery and Atlanta. The cast said returning to those cities five decades after the historic events occurred added another layer of reverence for their project.

“Some of the people that were at the marches were with us,” Oyelowo said. “They marched with us again 50 years later, so the acting goes out of the window and you’re just in a place of being. That is the ultimate when it comes to filmmaking.”

The pic receiving a standing ovation from the full-capacity audience at the AFI opening. Those involved in the making of the film, including Winfrey, stayed for a Q&A panel moderated by Alfre Woodard after the screening.

Paramount’s pic bows Christmas Day.

(Pictured: Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay at the first look of “Selma” at the AFI Fest)

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