All year, diversified races and ages have been chanting “Black lives matter” from coast to coast. Thousands of angry, frustrated people are using the power of civil disobedience and span of social media to finally fight back against the abusive, unjustified occurrences of police brutality and murders of unarmed Black men and women. And so the perfect timing of Selma’s Christmas Day limited release comes like a holiday gift to guide the modern day movement.
Chronicling the three-month struggle to gain Blacks the right to exercise their voting rights in 1965, Selma breaks down the vulnerable moments of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Supported by a vibrant group of activists, the film chronicles the emotions inherent in King’s 1960s movement. Humanistic moments of doubt, fear, disagreements and questionable decision-making color the path to motivating president Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Echoing the steep, uphill climb of a protest march, Selma accurately reflects the exhausting marathon walks and savvy non-violent political moves necessary in gaining justice in America.
The making of Selma was, in fact, like a protest movement in and of itself. Taking nearly a decade to hit the screen, a long list of directors were formerly attached to the project (including both Lee Daniels and Steven Spielberg). Some complained about needing a larger budget to make the movie. Spielberg pulled out, taking ownership of the rights to King’s speeches with him. And the lone man left—actor David Oyelowo, who’s been linked to the project for seven years—became like his Selma character King: the backbone of the movement to make this film.
Bringing Oprah Winfrey onboard as a producer (after working with her in The Butler) and rallying for Ava DuVernay to direct (after working with her on Middle of Nowhere), Oyelowo’s undying struggle to see Selma hit the screen was akin to an activist’s calling in passionately rallying behind a worthy cause.
“I kind of feel like, in the seven years since I read the script, I was on this journey towards this. And now, it culminated in the right people coming together to make the film,” says Oyelowo, who felt he’d been “called” to play the role of Dr. King. He’s since been nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe for his Selma portrayal. “I have to give such credit to Jeremy [Kleiner] and DeDe [Gardner] for sticking with the project for eight years. A lot of producers, considering how many false starts we had, would have maybe shelved the project. They didn’t. And so, you know, the right people, as I say, came together to support me in doing what I did.”
Producers Kleiner and Gardner are both White. Their support of the mission to make Selma is a mirror image of the diversified faces of a civil rights struggle that are often necessary in gaining support from the mainstream. Having respected celebrities attached can help drive support as well—just as Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett supported and walked in King’s legendary, five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Today’s famous name came in the form of Oprah Winfrey, who is not only a producer on the film, but also has a small role as elder activist Annie Lee Cooper (who joined the civil rights movement after being denied her right to vote five times). “I said yes for Annie Lee Cooper and for every other woman and man in my history who took that walk to the registrar’s office and was turned down and then went back home, and tried it another year, and then went back and tried it another year,” says Winfrey. “And when you think about what it takes to keep getting up and saying, ‘I will, and I can,’ in the face of an entire society that says that you cannot and you will not, I just wanted to be able to take the few minutes in that walk and pay tribute to all of those people. That’s why I said yes.”
The making of Selma inspired nearly every actor on set. The films stars Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lorraine Toussaint, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tessa Thompson, Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson… to name a few. Cast members like Common, who plays activist James Bevel, were even inspired to action.
“Selma is an awakening to me,” says Common. “It awakened you to the fact that you can help change the world. And no matter what neighborhood you come from or what color you are, you are a creation to be here to do something to contribute to the world.
“I have musically always been speaking up and saying something,” he continues. “I would show up at certain things and talk to the kids. But I feel like after being a part of Selma, it makes you feel like, ‘I have to do more.’ And part of that is just strategizing. Part of that is being part of the planning. Part of that is going to communities and really listening first and just understanding and then finding where you can fit in to contribute to that community. Selma’s awakened us at a time when we have to be awakened because we see the injustices going on. People are protesting right now, and Selma is a component to that.”
Like an alarm clock chiming to the tone of the day, Selma also opened the eyes of actress Carmen Ejogo, who portrays Coretta Scott King. “I feel going through this experience, the need to do more,” she says. “So I’m trying to be active. I’m trying to be at protests when they come to New York. And I’m trying to be aware of policy and what needs to be changed.
“Just aware of how the system operates so that you know your rights,” continues Ejogo. “[If] you don’t know your rights, you don’t know where you stand. And that’s on each and every one of us. And that’s easily done. That doesn’t even take getting out and protesting. That’s just learning. That’s just educating yourself. And through that, I think you can become a much more powerful vessel for change.”
But for director Ava DuVernay, filmmaking has always been activism. Brought on board to direct Selma because of her indie moviemaking experience in stretching finances, she used her grassroots know-how to make this project a reality. As founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), an organization dedicated to distributing Black films, DuVernay’s goal has always been to tell the stories of people of color from a multifaceted viewpoint.
“These images that we make affect the way we see ourselves and the way that we are seen. It shouldn’t be treated as a responsibility. It should be treated as an honor,” says DuVernay, who with Selma once again makes history as the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe. “This is a tool. These are seen around the world. Films last forever. And so I really feel like to not say something is to miss the point in so many ways.”
The point of Selma hits the target, assassinating all doubt of its cinematic greatness. Cinematographer Bradford Young’s riveting Bloody Sunday scenes of protestors frantically running through foggy tear gas fumes evoke somber low feelings that makes the blood pressure rise. DuVernay’s writing and reworking of King’s speeches float off the screen like Holy Ghost chills vibrating through the lines. And Oyelowo disappears into a transformative performance that effectively breaks Martin Luther King, Jr. down from untouchable myth to accessible, vulnerable, 36-year-old man.
Selma’s forward motion accurately documents the realistic pain, wavering passion and motivational reminders of what it takes to maintain a civil rights movement, bringing history and inspirational lessons sorely needed by those fighting for justice in the tension-filled times today.
Selma opened in limited release on Christmas Day. Its nationwide release is January 9.
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and activist. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.