Annie Lee Cooper is not a name most people will recognize. She was just another Black woman who arrived at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 25, 1965, with the intention of registering to vote. Like many in her day, Cooper had tried to register multiple times but had been turned away. Tensions were high and she knew the risks; on that day, however, it didn’t matter. She’d had enough.
At the time, 51 percent of Dallas County was Black, yet Whites comprised 99 percent of registered voters. The 54- year-old Cooper remained undeterred. She stood in line for hours until Sheriff James G. Clark told her to return home. In defiant protest, she ignored his request. What happened next varies, depending on who’s telling the story. But some published reports say Clark responded by pushing Cooper and whacking her across the head. She replied with a fist to his jaw. He fell back, stunned, then beat her repeatedly with his nightstick. Additional officers pounced on Cooper while Clark subdued her with his club. She was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder yet was released 11 hours later.
Cooper died in 2010, still for the most part unknown. And while other women such as Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates have been recognized in very public ways, Cooper remained invisible in the narrative of the movement—until now. The movie Selma, currently in wide release, sheds light on the story of how her scuffle with the law gave birth to a long walk that would change our nation forever.
The distance between Selma and Montgomery is 54 miles, a little over an hour’s drive. But if you were on foot, you’d probably be looking at a 16-hour walk. Six weeks after Cooper’s arrest, some 600 people set out east on Highway 80 in Selma, headed to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, to protest the lack of voting rights for Blacks in Dallas County—and throughout the South.
Local civil rights leaders had attempted to bring attention to their cause. But it wasn’t until organizers called in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that the climate shifted and the news crews arrived.
The story of Selma begins with peaceful protest marches and ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In between, there were public beatings in the streets, the killing of unarmed individuals and countless arrests. On March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, marchers were stopped abruptly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Alabama state troopers and Dallas County sheriff’s deputies refused to allow the group to cross, trampling and beating people into submission. Images of policemen on horseback and billows of thick smoke from tear gas made their way around the country. Those who had chosen to ignore what was happening in the South could no longer do so. Afterward, the line was definitively drawn between the Black community and the White establishment. Interestingly, this incredible moment and the events leading up to it had never before been explored on the big screen.
Director Ava DuVernay takes a step forward to transform us with this courageous new film—part MLK biopic, part history lesson, part prophesy of events that are still playing out 50 years later.
Just as the march had been interrupted, so had the momentum to get Selma made. It took more than seven years, several scripts and more than a few high-profile directors for the film to come to fruition. Before its official debut, it had received four Golden Globe nominations, and Oscar buzz is abound. That could be because Oprah Winfrey is tied to the project, both as a producer and actor. And because of a full cast of vibrant individuals who all had serendipitous stories bringing them to this momentous project. But critics agree that after seeing the film, you will know that the buzz has been ignited because of the one man who is most responsible for securing Winfrey’s participation and introducing producers to DuVernay, essentially getting the film made. You undoubtedly know David Oyelowo’s face, but after seeing Selma, you will remember his name.
For Oyelowo, playing King is more than just another role. The 38-year-old classically trained British actor had been seen most recently playing opposite Winfrey in Lee Daniels’ The Butler and in smaller parts including the 2012 hit Lincoln and Interstellar in 2014. But unlike any other role he’s played, he believes it is his unshakable faith and deep spirituality as a Christian that led him to Selma.
“At one time, the director who was attached to the script didn’t feel I was the right person to play Dr. King. In the preceding years, another three directors came and went,” recounts the actor during a conversation with Winfrey and co-star Carmen Ejogo at Harpo Studios in Chicago.
Yet, Oyelowo knew it wasn’t over. Director Lee Daniels was eventually hired and cast him as King. Unfortunately, things continued to stall, and Daniels eventually left the project to work on The Butler. While the film was on hold, Oyelowo appeared in Middle of Nowhere under DuVernay’s direction. After working with her, he says, he immediately believed she was the missing piece to the Selma puzzle.
“She came on board, and then things just started coming together,” he says emphatically.
While preparing for the role, Oyelowo met King’s youngest child, Bernice. She asked him what made him think he could play her father.
“I told her I felt like I’d been preparing for this role since my birth.”
Oyelowo says that at that moment, Bernice King, who is also a minister, prayed for him, silently giving her blessing. That was two days before Selma began shooting.
Taking on a character such as King is a tricky thing for any actor. The look has to be right, but not so much that it becomes a caricature. The vocal tone and inflection has to be spot on, but not so much that it feels like an imitation.
Oyelowo refused to wear prosthetics to physically transform for the role, believing that movie viewers are sophisticated enough and would be distracted by it. Instead, he added 30 pounds to his slender frame, changed his hairline slightly and perfected the reverend’s slow and methodical baritone.
According to Oyelowo, the physical changes were secondary; nailing the part meant trying to uncover who King was as a man.
“He exhibits in spades the attribute I value most in a human being, and that’s sacrifice,” says Oyelowo. “My feeling was that unless I tapped into who this man was spiritually, everything else would mean nothing.”
A Woman of Substance
Winfrey knows something about embracing the spirit of a character. From Sofia in The Color Purple and Mattie
Michael in The Women of Brewster Place to Gloria Gaines in The Butler, she has consistently played no-nonsense women with honor, duty and strength—which is not at all very different than who she is in real life. In addition to coming in as one of the film’s producers (a responsibility she shares with the Pathé company and the Plan B production company, helmed by Brad Pitt, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner), Winfrey plays the role of Cooper, ensuring her legacy is cemented.
Winfrey had heard about the unfinished Selma over the years. She and Oyelowo had become very good friends on the set of The Butler. She says the spark to get the film made was ignited after she saw a video of Oyelowo reciting one of King’s speeches. “I said, ‘Whoa,’ exclaims Winfrey with her eyes widening. “Let me do whatever I can to help this film come to fruition.”
In addition to wanting to see Oyelowo play the role he seemed born to play, Winfrey also believed in DuVernay’s mission to showcase both the well-known players and the lesser-known names who were instrumental in affecting
“Ava wanted to make a really strong effort to show the role that women played in the movement, Winfrey explains. “Annie Lee Cooper represents every one of our grandmothers, great grandmothers, grandfather, uncles, cousins and brothers who tried, believed, cried, prayed, wished for, desired in the deepest part of themselves and could never imagine that one day there would be a movie produced and starring people such as themselves. I said to Ava and David many times, ‘There’s no need to worry if we’re going to go forward with this movie. God’s got this.’”
DuVernay wrote and directed the highly acclaimed 2010 film I Will Follow and became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere, in 2012. It seems as if she, too, with roots that deeply penetrate the South, was called to do Selma. Her father, a native of Lowndes County, Ala., was 9 years old when one of the marches passed through his family’s farm.
The idea that she would be able to shoot the film in places where her own family experienced the events in real time was chilling for the director.
“We were in two state capitol buildings, in Alabama and Georgia, where in 1965, Blacks were barely allowed to go and conduct transactions,” says DuVernay. “Now you have a Black woman director and a Black lead and a whole bunch of Negroes running around making a movie in there? The knowledge of what we were doing and the ground that we were standing on was really present with us every day we shot.”
Talk to any one of the Selma cast or crew members, and there is one word that frequently pops up: responsibility. The importance of getting it “right” weighed on everyone’s mind, particularly because many of the complex characters are real people, some of whom are still alive today, such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and civil rights pioneer Diane Nash. It was vital to DuVernay’s vision that these icons be represented in an authentic way.
Winfrey also felt the haunting connection between the past and the present. The minute she signed on to the project, she contacted the King family to reassure them that the story was in good hands. “I was very good friends with Mrs. King and did my best to honor her while she was alive,” she says. “I know she would want this story to be shepherded in a way that really upheld the dignity and the magnitude of what those months in Selma meant.”
The Second Time Around
To the world, King is the epitome of pacifism, nonviolence and a stoic resolve; we know him as the force behind the movement. But not much has been revealed about Martin the man. The woman closest to him, his wife, Coretta Scott King, walked hand-in-hand with her husband on March 25, 1965, during the third (and first successful) attempt at completing the march from Selma to Montgomery. He was 36 years old, and she was 37. After 12 years of marriage, they were the parents of four small children. But by then, King was often away from home for long periods of time and had become somewhat estranged from his family.
Playing Mrs. King is British actress Ejogo, 41, who first portrayed her in HBO’s 2001 Boycott. In that film, the actress performed opposite her real-life husband, Jeffrey Wright, depicting King’s wife at the beginning of their marriage. In Selma, she has the rare opportunity to resume the role at a different point in Mrs. King’s life. During the early months of 1965, the couple was in the thick of a movement poised to change America, but they were also managing a low point in their relationship because of rumors, which were later confirmed—and evidenced by FBI wiretaps—of King’s infidelity.
“By the time we get to Selma, things were relentless for them. Martin and Coretta were really quite masterful at maintaining and projecting a certain image to the public,” says Ejogo. “What went on behind their closed doors is far more mysterious than with other couples in history. Part of the challenge was figuring out exactly who these people were.”
Known for her roles in 2012’s Sparkle and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, Ejogo aced her audition with DuVernay, who admits she had not seen the actress’s previous portrayal of Mrs. King. In fact, it was the star’s small role in a 2005 TV production of Lackawanna Blues that made the director take notice of Ejogo’s acting vulnerability.
Some will question why two British-born actors with Nigerian heritage are playing the most lauded African-American couple in history. Ejogo’s answer is simple: “The more I think about it, the more I feel like there is no explanation needed. I’m an actress. Some of my favorite work has been when I felt the most far away culturally from the experience,” she says. “It means that I can’t take anything for granted. I have to actually grasp what this moment in history is about because I didn’t learn it in school. In some ways, I had to do three times as much work as somebody who is actually from here.”
Many Bridges to Cross
For those who are too young to remember the Civil Rights Movement, Selma is the kind of film that becomes a timeless reference. It is indicative of where we were as a community and a precursor to where we are headed. There are correlations to events that have played out recently in our biggest news stories—namely, the repeal of voting rights, the constant disrespect of the nation’s first Black president, the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the numerous protests nationwide spurred by the decision not to indict a New York Police Department officer after the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Although many responses to injustices today are often reactionary, the film highlights how daily survival with constant victimization such as Jim Crow laws was an additional motivation for the intensity of the civil unrest the nation experienced 50 years ago.
“Selma is an invitation to explore within ourselves what dignity and personal power means to us; what we are or are not doing to better our world,” explains DuVernay. “Just because we aren’t living in that time doesn’t mean that we’re not required to do more to help the next guy.”
Under DuVernay’s watchful eye, Winfrey, Oyelowo and Ejogo skillfully provide evocative, authentic portrayals set in an intense context that will leave you in awe. The goal is to walk away not feeling weighed down by the past but enlightened by what to do for the future—to encourage us to stand up for what’s right with a rebellious spirit, as Annie Lee Cooper once did.
“One of the most important things that we can do as storytellers and filmmakers is to tell the story of who we are and who we’ve been,” explains Winfrey. “And allow people to see this in such a way in that they feel strengthened and inspired by it.”