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Ava DuVernay And David Oyelowo Re-Team For 'Selma'

Myah Williams |
December 23, 2014 | 4:48 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

"Selma" director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo (Twitter/@boniemylurv)
"Selma" director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo (Twitter/@boniemylurv)
In Paramount’s upcoming film "Selma," David Oyelowo had to step into the skin of one of the nation’s most iconic historical figures.

He took on the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in an unprecedented capacity, as "Selma" is the first Hollywood biopic that features the civil rights icon at the story’s center. With support from the film’s director, Ava DuVernay who is a close collaborator and friend, Oyelowo approached the task by seeking the man beyond the symbol.  

Oyelowo is Nigerian born in Britain, which for some may make his portrayal of an American Civil Rights hero seem counterintuitive. He told an audience during a Q&A following the AFI Fest screening of Selma that his origins helped him to connect to the character.

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"I have had the privilege to live on three continents as a black person," he said. "The thing I learned in Nigeria is that we are born of kings, we are people of deep pride, incredible culture, and indescribable power, and unfortunately [in Europe and America] that has been denigrated over time. And I don't think it's any accident that somehow this great man's name was 'King'. And the dots joined in that way for me." 

I had the opportunity to speak with Oyelowo and Duvernay during a conference interview for college journalists. For her work on "Selma" DuVernay is the first African American female to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director. Oyelowo also received a nomination for Best Actor in a Drama.  

"The reason why I decided to do this film was because of [David],” she admitted. A palpable mutual admiration exists between the two. Together they have developed a fraternal actor/director partnership since the 2012 debut of the Sundance acclaimed film "Middle of Nowhere" which cast both their talents into the limelight. 

While DuVernay’s previous films centered on modern themes surrounding urban communities—she once referred to her chosen genre as “urban hipster romances”—Selma takes on a whole new depth. DuVernay admits that the idea of a film tackling the Civil Rights Movement was not one that she ever had in mind, however, the opportunity to work with Oyelowo again was the chief incentive.   

DuVernay revealed that in Oyelowo she saw a friend with whom she could “hold hands” in the telling of this story. It was, in fact Oyelowo who championed DuVernay to take on the film after director Lee Daniels had to bow out of the project in favor of helming "The Butler."

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I asked them each to retell an experience while shooting the film that was particularly impactful. Oyelowo obliged by recounting a scene in which actress Carmen Ejogo, who plays King’s wife Coretta Scott King, reacts to hearing blackmail audio tapes sent to their home by the FBI. 

“As an actor you are always looking for the arc of transformation,” Oyelowo stated. “Who is the husband, who is the friend, who is the man who is unsure, who is the man who is existing in the silences, not just when he is speaking.” In this particular scene, Oyelowo offers a glimpse of fallible vulnerability that serves to peel back the layers of Dr. King and expose his humanity. 

"Selma" chronicles Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadershp Conference’s preparation for the infamous 1965 voter rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In what would become known as “Bloody Sunday”, Alabama state police violently clashed with the peaceful marchers. The events were nationally televised and awoke the nation to the depths of the ongoing civil rights struggle.  

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“We are at a cultural moment right now where the story in 'Selma' seems so important—the fact that art can speak to what is happening in the world at this time is really moving for us as filmmakers and as storytellers,” DuVernay revealed. The film is sure to stir strong emotions in association with current events.   

DuVernay sees "Selma" as an “echo through history from 1965 to now,” given rising tension surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the subsequent demonstrations around the nation. 

It seldom happens that a film, set in the past, so strongly channels sentiments within the cultural zeitgeist. Selma has all the potential to make history.

"Selma" opens in theaters in select cities on December 25th. 

Reach staff reporter Myah Williams here.



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