Behind the Scenes of the History-Making Movie Selma
After nearly ten years, multiple directors and several rewrites, Selma, the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for voting rights in 1965, is finally marching to the big screen.
By Arianna Davis
One sweltering afternoon last June in Selma, Alabama, the air was electric, filled with the sound of the synchronized footsteps of hundreds of marchers following Martin Luther King Jr. across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heading straight for a barricade of state troopers with billy clubs at the ready. The scene being shot for Selma was eerily convincing, down to the Confederate flags waving in the distance, the ’60s-style clothing and actor David Oyelowo’s startling resemblance to King. “I got off the plane and had to take a step back,” says Oprah, who coproduced the film and has a small role. “Crossing the bridge, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m literally walking in footsteps that paved the way for me nearly 50 years ago.’ I knew this wasn’t just filmmaking, but the creation of a story infused with an ancestral spirit.”
On set, director Ava DuVernay—the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s best director award for drama, for her indie film Middle of Nowhere—created, as Oprah says, “an energetic force field of calm, steady direction,” key for a story so emotionally charged that the Selma crew was often in tears. “I’ve avoided biographical films because they’re usually overly glossy and perfect,” DuVernay says. “But the more I researched this story, the more I was reminded—especially as a black woman—that who we are now is based on who we were then. It was time to tell this tale, with all of its imperfections and beauty.”
On Oprah’s last day on set, just before the final take, it began to rain. DuVernay said to keep rolling, but after several minutes it was pouring—just as DuVernay got her shot: the marchers face-to-face with state troopers. She high-fived Oyelowo and Oprah, who cried out, “This is how we make movies, people!” The cast and crew, black and white, set down their batons and tear gas to shake hands, hug and call it a day.
Long Live King
British actor David Oyelowo—who played supporting roles in The Last King of Scotland, Lincoln and Lee Daniels’ The Butler—might look a lot like King, but it took him years to nail King’s passion and demeanor. (“After I saw his audition tape,” says Oprah, “I told him, ‘You’re not quite there yet, but you’re headed in the right direction.’?”) Here’s how he did it:
Landing the Part
“I received the script for Selma in 2007, shortly after moving to the United States. Soon after, on July 24, I was sitting at home when the voice of God popped into my head and told me I was going to play MLK. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s what happened—I even wrote it in my journal as proof! Unfortunately, the director at the time didn’t agree with God, and I didn’t get the part—until three years later, when subsequent director Lee Daniels cast me. I was elated, but it was still another three years before Ava came on board and we got the green light.”
Doing His Homework
“The good thing about believing you’re going to play MLK seven years before the movie starts filming? You have plenty of time to prepare. I became a student of his life, studying speeches and interviews and memorizing every detail of his accent and hand gestures. I didn’t want to portray a historical caricature known only for the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I wanted to give him humanity, to show the world who he was.”
Man in the Mirror
“For the role, I gained 30 pounds, shaved back my hairline and grew a moustache. During the six weeks of filming, I rarely broke from speaking in King’s Southern drawl. One day while shooting in Atlanta, I looked in the bathroom mirror and could not see myself—it was King staring back at me. I freaked out!”
The Women of Selma
Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
King’s wife was an activist in her own right. A classically trained vocalist, Scott King performed in Freedom Concerts and led demonstrations, including the march from Selma to Montgomery, walking with her husband at the head of thousands of protesters.
Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint)
In 1965, Boynton, a longtime voter registration leader, along with King, other local activists and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the Selma marches. On Bloody Sunday, police attacked Boynton; it was a photo of her, beaten and unconscious, on the front pages that helped draw national attention to Selma.
Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson)
A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Nash eventually joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, campaigning for voting rights and working with King and other civil rights leaders to plan the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.
Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey)
While standing in line to register to vote, Cooper was jabbed in the neck with a billy club by a sheriff. Cooper reacted by decking him. “I was hesitant because I’d already played two characters”—Sofia in The Color Purple and Gloria in The Butler—”who hit someone,” Oprah says. “But I decided to play Annie because of what her courage meant to this movement. She is a hero.”
Looking Back, Moving Forward
By 1965, there were more than 15,000 black residents of voting age in Selma—only 335 were registered to vote. The events that changed everything:
March 7: Some 600 demonstrators attempt a roughly 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to demand an end to voter discrimination. At Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, law enforcement officers attack in what becomes known as Bloody Sunday.
March 9: King leads a second march across Edmund Pettus Bridge. When met by state troopers, the marchers kneel, pray and turn around. President Lyndon B. Johnson announces that legislation is being drafted that will secure the right to vote for all citizens.
March 10: The U.S. Department of Justice files suit to protect civil rights demonstrators.
March 17: A federal district court judge rules in favor of marchers, allowing a third protest to take place.
March 21: Under protection of federal troops, 3,200 activists set out from Selma. Four days later, 25,000 marchers reach Montgomery.
August 6: President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.