Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo on the ‘Divine Timing’ of ‘Selma’

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Following the New York premiere of “Selma,” a dramatic account of a pivotal chapter in the civil rights movement, director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo and other cast members took to the steps of the city’s public library, raising their arms in the “don’t shoot” pose and wearing T-shirts bearing the last words of slain Staten Island resident Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.” The red-carpet event and protest unfolded on the same December weekend that saw more than 25,000 demonstrators march through the streets of Manhattan after a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the choking death of Garner.

It was a surprisingly blunt statement of political and artistic intent for a film that likely would have struck a resonant chord in any year — not least because it’s the first theatrical feature ever made about the life of Martin Luther Jr. (Oyelowo), and an important corrective to what DuVernay calls an act of “criminal” negligence on Hollywood’s part. But as was clear from that dramatic moment on the library steps — and a recent New York press conference, where the sound of protests could be heard in the distance while DuVernay and producer Oprah Winfrey calmly answered questions — “Selma” could scarcely have emerged at a more bracing or troubling hour than the present one: a time when the killings of Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford and countless other African-American men have sparked widespread outrage and a fierce national debate on racism, white privilege and the need for police reform.

With its ground-level scenes of organized protest, stirring outcry for justice, and shrewd understanding of the media’s role in drawing attention to a righteous cause, “Selma” has become an indelible movie of the moment — that rare epochal work that speaks as pointedly to this era as to the one it depicts.

Kurt Iswarienko for Variety

“Divine timing is what it is,” Winfrey says during a recent interview at her home in Santa Barbara, where she, DuVernay and Oyelowo were preparing to host a screening for veterans of the civil rights movement. For Winfrey, a firm believer in the importance of knowing one’s history, the achievement of “Selma” is that it dramatizes, and demystifies, those celebrated efforts.

“You get to see the magnitude and power of their discipline and strategy,” she says. “And also, in the end, that they called on love. When (King) called on those clergy from all over the country, they actually came and (were willing to give) up their lives.”

Set over a three-month period in 1965, the film (which opened Dec. 25 in limited release and will expand Jan. 9) offers a sharply focused, strikingly intimate account of how King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a series of 50-mile marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The anti-black violence that erupted on what became known as Bloody Sunday — inflamed by Selma’s racist leadership and magnified by the press — galvanized the nation and ultimately spurred the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which helped millions of Southern blacks to vote for the first time.

“Selma’s” chronicle of that tumultuous period proved especially transporting for many who attended the Washington, D.C., premiere on Dec. 11. During the post-screening Q&A, 74-year-old Congressman John Lewis, sharing the stage with DuVernay and Oyelowo, described the surreal experience of seeing himself onscreen as a civil rights activist in his 20s — a far cry from his days growing up a few miles from Selma, where “when we went to the theater, as young black children, we had to go upstairs to the balcony.” Willa Hall Smith, an Alabama native, recalled her firsthand experience participating in the marches: “This is not just a movie, folks! This is real. This actually happened.”

Yet it hasn’t taken long for the conversation to shift from the injustices of the past to those of the present. While DuVernay originally thought the film might help draw attention to the ongoing issue of minority voter suppression in the U.S., she says the ever-present reality of police violence against unarmed black men was never far from her mind. For all involved, the movie began to seem even more unsettlingly prescient after Brown was killed on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., a little more than a month after production wrapped in Atlanta. (Since then, another August police killing of a black man — Ford, shot at close range by members of the LAPD — has come to light, causing recent protests in Los Angeles.)

Kurt Iswarienko for Variety

“When events around Ferguson began, I figured the film was going to be a reminder of organizational tactics and strategies we can apply to the idea of civil disobedience,” DuVernay says.

Among those who echo the director’s sentiments is King’s older son, Martin Luther King III, who was among those in attendance at the New York premiere. A critic of the violence that has erupted in Ferguson, but also a supporter of the thousands who have chosen to protest peacefully, he says “Selma” offers an instructive vision of what his father’s devotion to nonviolent resistance really looked like.

“The film shows the depth and breadth of the tactics that (my father) and his team used,” he says. “It shows that, through endurance, you can be successful, and you can do it in a peaceful way.”

But in the wake of the grand juries’ decisions not to indict in the deaths of Brown and Garner — even despite the widely circulated video of a police officer placing Garner in a chokehold — the conversation around “Selma” seems to have shifted yet again, this time in a more uncertain, despairing direction. For even as technology and social media have turned the national dialogue on race into a global one, those resources have increasingly desensitized people to images of brutality, as Oyelowo notes: “With Eric Garner, it’s now evident that what worked in Selma wouldn’t actually work today.”

Echoes DuVernay: “You had a media-capture of racism and the strangulation of this brother, and nothing happened. We’re trying to figure out how this all works together at this point. But there’s something brewing, this collaborative energy for change.”

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Of all the narratives that have emerged from the making of “Selma,” few are as compelling or irresistible as that of DuVernay herself, who found herself hailed as an immediate awards contender following the film’s Nov. 11 unveiling at AFI Fest in Hollywood, where she, Oyelowo and Winfrey drew a rapturous standing ovation. Since then, the director has seen her film earn glowing reviews, a raft of Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award nominations, and more than $2 million in limited release. But there have been setbacks as well: a round of attacks on the script’s historical accuracy, as well as a complete nomination shutout by the major guilds so far — an oversight that many attribute to the fact that Paramount didn’t send DVD screeners to guild members.

Even still, DuVernay is widely expected to make history on Jan. 15 by becoming the first black woman to receive an Oscar nomination for director — not a bad break for a 42-year-old former publicist who had made only two little-seen dramatic features, “I Will Follow” (2010) and “Middle of Nowhere” (2012), plus a few documentaries and shorts, when she stumbled on her big Hollywood breakthrough. As DuVernay is quick to admit, she was an unlikely choice for the gig, and not just because the studios aren’t in the habit of handing $20 million historical dramas to women with dreadlocks — or women of any background, for that matter.

Striking a warm, down-to-earth tone as she rattles off historical names, dates and events with scholarly ease, DuVernay describes herself as having always been “more of a Black Panthers/Malcolm X kind of girl,” going back to her days growing up in Compton and pursuing African-American studies at UCLA. At the same time, she felt personally drawn to King and the Selma narrative (her father is from Montgomery and witnessed the marches), as well as the prospect of restoring something earthy and authentic to the civil rights movement, whose hallowed legacy, she felt, had been drained of much of its radicalism and vitality over the years.

“It’s so prestigious, and it’s so hard to touch and reach and feel,” she explains. “The heroism feels so elevated and unreachable, whereas the Panthers feel very grassroots.”

DuVernay turned out to be the missing piece of a puzzle that the film’s original trio of producers — Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner of Plan B Entertainment, and Christian Colson — had been struggling to assemble for seven years. The original plan had been to bring together an A-list cast/director package that would justify a $35 million budget, says Cameron McCracken, managing director of chief financier Pathe and an executive producer on the film.

One of the project’s mainstays during that period was Oyelowo, a gifted British-born actor who had read Paul Webb’s original script when it hit the Black List in 2007, and who immediately felt called to play the lead role. A devout Christian, the 38-year-old Oyelowo lets nary a press engagement go by without discussing the spiritual kinship he feels with King, or declaring his belief — without a hint of presumptuousness or naivete — that God meant for him to take on the part.

“I was really drawn to this man — to the self-sacrifice, the notion of love in the face of hate,” Oyelowo says. “As a man of faith, the things that he held dear were the things that lodged in my spirit.”

Stephen Frears, who was attached to direct at the time, didn’t share the actor’s conviction that he should play King. Frears eventually left the project, which passed to Paul Haggis, Spike Lee and Lee Daniels, who finally cast Oyelowo in 2010. Together, the two went on to make “The Paperboy” and “The Butler” — another civil rights-themed film — at which point Daniels opted out of “Selma.”

Kurt Iswarienko for Variety

But Oyelowo suggested the producers meet DuVernay, “a seismic, undeniable talent” with whom he had worked on “Middle of Nowhere,” which had won the prize for best director at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Oddly enough, McCracken had approached DuVernay about doing some consulting on “Selma” years earlier, when she was still a publicist. Now, as a director accustomed to working on a shoestring, she seemed uniquely qualified to shepherd the film on a downgraded budget of $20 million.

DuVernay was startled to realize that the producers were genuinely interested in giving her a try. For someone well versed in the art of the hard sell, landing the job had turned out to be shockingly straightforward.

“I was like, ‘Are these people really serious?!’ I didn’t have to pitch. (David) had done that for me,” she says.

The director’s interest in focusing on King and other civil rights leaders fell particularly in line with the intentions of Kleiner and Gardner, who also produced last year’s Oscar-winning best picture, “12 Years a Slave.” While it would be reductive to group these two very different historical dramas together, it’s hard not to see parallels, given the general paucity of films that focus on black travails through the eyes of those who experienced it, rather than through those of their white oppressors or benefactors. For Gardner, both “12 Years” and “Selma” exemplify her and Kleiner’s commitment to “telling stories that haven’t been told.”

To that end, DuVernay significantly reworked Webb’s script, which had granted considerable screentime to the character of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). In the rewrite, King clearly became the central figure, though not so dominant that he overwhelmed what Winfrey calls the “women and the brothers” of the civil rights movement, whose contributions DuVernay put front and center in her rewrite.

Like many a fact-based awards contender, “Selma” has already drawn fire for some of its artistic liberties — mainly in the form of a harsh Washington Post editorial by Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as Johnson’s top domestic aide, and who argued that the film falsely portrays the 36th president as having been at odds with King and his push for voting rights. (A subsequent New York Times report quoted several authors, professors and historians who share Califano’s concerns.)

DuVernay, who has an active social-media presence and rarely backs down from an argument, was quick to respond on Twitter, taking particular issue with Califano’s “jaw-dropping” suggestion that the Selma marches were actually Johnson’s idea. For her, it’s that sort of attitude — an insistence on seeing the civil rights movement as primarily a matter of white-man heroics — that makes “Selma” a necessary act of historical reclamation.

“What was important to me was that everyone be real,” says DuVernay. “I was interested in the people who were there, being bludgeoned and humiliated: the real Amelia Boynton, the real Diane Nash, the real John Lewis, the real C.T. Vivian, the real Andrew Young.”

King’s troubled but resilient relationship with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), became another key focus, allowing DuVernay to put a relatable human face on a man too frequently reduced to the words “I have a dream,” and also to draw on her love for subtle, character-driven drama, marbled with empathy and a restrained yet palpable sensuality. For all that, DuVernay is not listed as a co-writer on “Selma,” due to a contract clause that allowed Webb to retain sole credit; as neither one is a member of the Writers Guild of America, the matter was not submitted for arbitration. Attempts to reach Webb, who is based in the U.K. and has been conspicuously absent from the promotional circuit, were unsuccessful.

“It’s a hard situation, but there’s really nothing to say,” DuVernay says. “Paul Webb made his decision. I wish him well.”

Having successfully brought DuVernay aboard, Oyelowo proved no less vital in securing the participation of Winfrey, whom he had befriended on the set of “The Butler.” Although Winfrey says she “just came to help out,” she agreed to serve as a producer, and quickly became involved at every stage of the process, whether taking endless phone meetings or dealing with bond companies — “the boring, un-sexy stuff,” says DuVernay, who describes the producer as “a true champion, in every sense of the word.” With Winfrey’s high-profile backing, Pathe was able to sell North American rights to Paramount Pictures for a much higher sum than expected on the eve of pre-production.

Kurt Iswarienko for Variety

“If I go in, I’m all in,” says Winfrey, who is about to turn 61. “I wanted to see David realize the dream, and I wanted Ava to be able to have this kind of budget and this kind of opportunity.”

It was harder for DuVernay to convince Winfrey to take on the small but crucial onscreen role of Annie Lee Cooper, a civil rights activist who famously clocked Selma Sheriff Jim Clark in the jaw during a 1965 demonstration outside the Dallas County Courthouse. But when it came to light that the real Cooper (who died in 2010 at the age of 100) had been a religious fan of “Oprah,” Winfrey was won over.

Winfrey also intervened in the sensitive matter of the three King children, from whom the producers had hoped to obtain the intellectual property rights to their father’s famous speeches — the main reason why no feature film had yet been made about his legacy. These efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful, due in part to the fact that the King estate had licensed the speeches to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for a Steven Spielberg-produced biopic that’s still in the works.

Rather than let the project bog down in copyright issues or fractious family dynamics, DuVernay wrote a series of scenes that conveyed the fire and eloquence of King’s rhetoric without cleaving to the very letter, then trusted Oyelowo’s performance to do the rest. (In recent months, two of the King heirs — Martin Luther King III and Bernice King — have attended screenings of the film and given it their quiet support; their brother Dexter Scott King has not, despite invitations from Paramount.)

In some ways, Winfrey and DuVernay might seem a counterintuitive pairing — one a billionaire media titan prized for her ability to reach consumers of all ages and backgrounds, the other a fiercely independent filmmaker known for her outspoken, sometimes combative advocacy on behalf of the black community. In person, however, the two share the warm, affectionate rapport of old friends, gently ribbing each other and finishing each other’s sentences; even their voices seem complementary, Winfrey’s gentle, soothing tones providing a cushion for DuVernay’s crisp, energetic rasp.

Praising DuVernay’s “assuredness and confidence,” Winfrey describes her as “a validating director. I saw it with the extras, I saw it with people who’d never been on a movie set in their lives, I saw it with crew members. She is the same with every single person always.”

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Before the film’s New York premiere, the last time DuVernay had been at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater was in 2006, when she was a publicist working the premiere of “Dreamgirls,” helping to usher the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy and Beyonce past a crazed throng of journalists, well-wishers and other attendees. Back in those days, she typically favored a functional black suit. On “Selma’s” big night, however, she looked resplendent in red as she stood before the cameras rather than behind them, dispensing hugs left and right, and happily minding no one but herself.

There’s something fitting about the idea of a former flack having made a movie that is very much about the power of publicity — the need for skillful media manipulation in order to effect meaningful change in America. On a practical level, it’s clear that the 12 years DuVernay spent in the world of publicity and indie distribution (during which she started her own marketing company, DVA Media + Marketing, and co-founded the African-American Film Releasing Movement) were hardly wasted when it came time to tackle her most ambitious canvas.

Having spent years on movie sets where the principals could barely remember her name, DuVernay prides herself on knowing just about everyone who worked on “Selma” (especially the unit publicist, whom she says “was treated like an effin’ queen”). The director’s extensive PR experience also taught her how to talk to actors at their most vulnerable and insecure — not an issue she faced with Oyelowo, whose portrayal of King required little in terms of overt guidance.

“Sometimes with performances, you have to really work with the actor to get there,” DuVernay says. “He was already there.”

As for the film’s large-scale action sequences, DuVernay notes that she was prepared even for those logistical difficulties, due in part to her experience coordinating events attended by hundreds. That became especially crucial when it came time to work with green screen, horses and firearms for the dramatic re-creation of Bloody Sunday, which bad weather forced her to complete in just one-and-a-half days. (The film was shot in just 32 days.)

“I hate to equate Bloody Sunday to a red carpet, but when you drill down to it, the mechanics aren’t all that different,” she says, adding that she was determined not to turn the film’s scenes of white-on-black violence into a gratuitous spectacle. “Violence to the black body in the Deep South in the early part of the century was a complete violation of humanity. You’ve got to show the repercussions of it on the heart, on the psyche, on the faces of the people.”

Those repercussions — as they played out then, and are playing out today — are at the very core of what the director and her collaborators hope “Selma” will convey to the world as it finds its audience. In offering a possible explanation for why it took so long for the film to reach the screen, DuVernay steps back to consider the moment.

“I’m not sure what the answer is, but it feels like the time is now,” she says. “This is a beautiful time for this film to be in the world.”