A History For All Era’s.
By Catherine McGee.
It’s hard to imagine that, as one of the most influential and renowned people in the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr has never been the subject of a cinematic endeavour. 2015 sees the first on-screen story of Dr King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma – however those waiting for a full biopic must continue the wait.
Selma explores the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital Montgomery to protest for the ability to vote. Led by Martin Luther King, hundreds of activists descend on Edmund Pettus Bridge to be met with violence and hatred – all broadcast on National television. Meanwhile President Johnson deals with mounting pressure to sign the Voting Rights Act despite lack of cooperation from segregationist governor George Wallis. The interwoven tales of Selma are told – from the inner struggles between Dr King and his family, to the residents of Selma, to the government-ordered FBI tracking on Dr King.
A tribute to the entire Civil Rights movement, Selma is an exercise in unity, collaboration and togetherness and the production has been a masterpiece in such qualities from the ground up. Producer Didi Gardner explains: “there were any number of approaches you could take to this material but what set this group apart was that they really wanted to encompass the totality of the civil rights movement with Dr King at the helm, but not all alone. He was supported by and sharing these experiences with a group of people – and it was important to show there were also fractures in this group… This group brought a real focus on that, and also on the fact that the movement involved women and was not just the domain of men”.
Fresh from stealing the Best Director crown at Sundance, DuVernay’s approach indeed incorporates the presence and relevance of women to the Civil Rights Movement with a canon of powerful and respected women among her cast and crew, including Oprah Winfrey producing and starring as Annie Lee Cooper. She says: “The truth of the matter is that women were the backbone of the civil rights movement. Behind every one of the men out there, this band of brothers, there was a woman. There was Juanita Abernathy behind Ralph Abernathy, Coretta King behind Martin Luther King”.
Lead David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King) celebrates Selma’s female director as totally the right choice for the story at hand: “Even within the civil rights movement, women were marginalized. They were just talented, just as fervent about the injustices of the day, they sacrificed just as much if not more, but they haven’t been celebrated as heroes. So for me, for a black woman to be at the helm of this story felt absolutely right“.
It’s clear from the outset that everybody involved with the production felt a closeness and responsibility for telling such an important story. Oyelowo sums it up; “With this film I can genuinely say that there was an overriding feeling of service. All of us, cast and crew were there asking each day: How can we serve this incredible community who put their lives on the line for the privileges we now enjoy?”
It follows that a big concern of the team in telling of such an important event, was authenticity. The importance of striking a balance between realism and charicature was paramount – Tom Wilkinson explains of his role as President Johnson “I thought it was very wrong to do an impersonation of LBJ – Impersonations are so distracting.” Giovanni Ribisi (Lee C. White) echoes this in reference to Wilkinson”s performance: “There have been portrayals of LBJ where he is almost a comedic character, because he could be so eccentric. But Tom had a very specific and natural take on him.” The same was true of Oyelowo”s Dr King – despite being British and raised between England and Nigeria he feels his distance from the idealised image of Dr King was a huge advantage. He says “I hadn’t grown up with Martin Luther King as a deified figure, so I felt a freedom to come at him more as just a man, more as a fully realized character.”
Just such an appreciation for authenticity and avoidance of idealisation underlined the research and writing for the production too. DuVernay says she tried to stick with the stories as told to her by eye witnesses: “My approach was to tell the truth as best we could, because the actual facts of what happened, the actual people who were there, are more fascinating than anything you could make up. Everyone you see in this film really lived, really struggled, really did these things. They are so compelling that there was no reason to make anything up.”
The need for authenticity ran deeper still – the majority of the film is shot in the exact location of the real events – and for good reason. DuVernay explains: “It was crucial to shoot in the south, crucial to get into Alabama and crucial to be on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We needed to stand where the real marchers stood, where they had bled and cried and held hands like that. We needed to get into the DNA of the place, the spirit that is there“.
Gardner also notes that “it was very moving to shoot there. There are visible reminders of what this story is about everywhere. To be shooting on [the bridge] to have David preaching at the same pulpit where King preached… there’s something so rich and valuable about being inside that space. It’s the fabric of the story”
As with many great things and the 1965 bill itself, it has been a long while in the making – eight years to be precise, but that doesn’t mean it’s only a story of days gone by. On the contrary, the resounding, varied narratives and messages in Selma apply just as appropriately today – Producer Kleiner summarises; “It might be an ode to the brilliant strategies and tactics of the group of civil rights leaders. Or it could be a story about the struggle to overcome the enduring doctrine of white supremacy. It’s complex and it doesn’t have one meaning – it’s a story that could feel relevant at any point in history.”
Selma is in UK cinemas Friday 6th February, 2015.