*Not since Denzel Washington embodied “Malcolm X” has there been such a transformation in characterization on the screen as there is with David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King in “Selma.” The public is well aware of Martin Luther King, Jr. but after seeing his life portrayed in “Selma,” the magnitude of his accomplishments will forever be etched on moviegoers psyche. Considering the risks Dr. King took as an activist and purveyor of justice, The Film Strip asked Oyelowo to define action superhero. As expected, he didn’t hesitate to say, “Dr. King.”
David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr.) was at the Oriental Mandarin hotel in New York City, along with Oprah Wintry (Annie Lee Cooper/Producer), director Ava DuVernay, cast members Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King) Common (James Bevel), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Tim Roth (Governor George Wallace), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, to talk about “Selma.” No more introductions are necessary because, basically, they all summed up this remarkable story caught on film.
Sidney Poitier once said he chose work that reflected his values. Do you share that sentiment?
DAVID OYELOWO: Yes. Never before have I engaged in an artist endeavor that so brings everything I am as a man together. I’m a Christian and I have four children. Because of my faith, sacrificial love in the face of injustice, these are things I hold dear. As a man, as a storyteller, as a citizen of the world, you know, what you see when you watch ‘Selma’ is everything I value and aspire to be. Two of the things I was so glad we showed was how humanity came together to fight this cause together, black, white, people of several faiths coming together. I think that that’s the most beautiful thing we do as human beings is coming together. I also feel, as a man, one of the things I was so proud of with this film was Ava bringing to light the women in this film. I have a beautiful wife. I have an incredible daughter. I am a big fan of women. And you know, they were marginalized within this movement, even though it was a movement against injustice and inequality.
They were just as brilliant, they were just as bright, they were just as courageous and tenacious, and I just feel one of the greatest blessings of my life was also seeing Ava and Oprah behind the monitor while we were shooting this film. That, to me, is definitely a realization of Dr. King’s dream, this beautiful black woman telling this story so beautifully; this other beautiful black woman helping us get this story told. This wouldn’t have happened 50 years ago, in terms of them helping us get this done. So, if this is one of, if not the greatest things I do with my life, I will be happy with that.
What was your process in transforming into this icon?
DO: Well, you know, Dr. King did not think of himself as an icon. He didn’t walk around thinking of himself as a historical figure. He was a man. And you know, I am so full of admiration, in terms of what he did. The thing that I could seize upon was he was a father of four, as I am, he was a Christian, as I am, he was someone who valued justice, as I do, and those were my entry points. One of the most valuable sources I had for finding him was Andrew Young. I spent a lot of time with Ambassador Young and he talked to me about his friend. He talked to me about the prankster, the father, the man who was at times unsure, and that was the foundation on which I had to build. Of course, as an actor, you have to do the technical things, you know, the weight gain. And also, you know what? One of the amazing things for me was the journey I went through in order to get to this place.
I had the privilege of being in films like ‘Lincoln,’ in which I played a Unionist soldier, I played a preacher in ‘The Help,’ I played a black fighter pilot in ‘Red Tails,’ I played the son of a butler in ‘The Butler,’ who was in the sit-ins, in the freedom rides, and became a Black Panther. You know, all these things also went into this portrayal. So 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. I have to give 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.
First, there are clearly parallels to what is happening now. Can you talk about that and Dr. King’s three-step strategy?
DO: You’re right. Well I think the parallels that I can see, in terms of Selma and Ferguson, is in the same way that in Ferguson, when it was voting rights that was being asked for, it was a black problem. Once Bloody Sunday happened and the country saw those images, it became an American problem. I think with Ferguson, when it was about Ferguson, it was a black problem. When the country saw the injustice of what happened to Eric Garner, it became an American problem. And that was the point where black and white came together and these marches really gained momentum. And in that instance, in Selma, the problem was voting rights and there was federal intervention, because what you had is a situation whereby, for want of a better phrase, the game was rigged.
You know, as a black person, if you got killed and someone was brought on trial, they most likely would get off because it was a white jury of their peers. We have a situation now where what we need is police reform and the game is rigged again, because there is a conflict of interest, if it’s local prosecutors and the police. So I would say we need federal intervention again, but also we just need to focus in on what are the demands. My fear at the moment is we have this amazing slew of protests but we don’t have someone like Dr. King articulating what it is we want, what it is we need.
OPRAH WINFREY: A clear intention.
DO: A clear intention. And that’s not to say that we need a Dr. King in order to do that, but what I hope Selma shows and what is clearly needed, is that clear intention. What are we asking for, how are we going to ask for it in a tactical, politically savvy way, and I really hope and pray that our film in some ways shows what was effective in the past and how we can be effective going forward.
Carmen, since this is the second time you have played Coretta Scott King, how was it different?
CARMEN EJOGO: I was excited to explore the character for a second time, which I can’t think of any other actor that’s got the chance to do that, to explore the same character at a different part of their life. I think what excited me about doing it again was that it was a very different take, and she’s a very different woman at this point. There’s a burden, there’s weariness. The marriage is in a very different space. And I think Ava’s intention to not explore the iconography of these people and the mythology and to sort of get behind the curtain and to deconstruct the mythology was what was most intriguing to me. And I’m really excited by characters that have an external life that maybe doesn’t match up to the internal, and I feel like Coretta was very much that person. I remember watching an episode of Oprah while I was in the UK of a makeover of Coretta.
How important is it for today’s young people to see this film? In your Master Class, Oprah, when Cicely Tyson asked a 13-year-old about Martin Luther King she said, ‘Who is Martin Luther King? ‘
OW: You already know the answer to the question because you’re asking it [Laughs]. I think you don’t know yourself and you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from. And Maya Angelou has a wonderful poem, it’s called ‘To Our Grandmothers’ and in it she says, ‘I come as one but I stand as 10,000.’ And I’ve been in multiple meetings where I was the single woman and the single black person within a 50 mile radius, but I step into that room as one, and I come with 10,000, and 10,000 and 10,000, at my back and my sides.
And knowing that means I can go anywhere, I can do anything, because I recognize where I’ve come from and what I’ve come from. So the Annie Lee Coopers of the world, names a of lot of people that didn’t make the history books and aren’t as known as Dr. King and John Lewis and all the others, were equally important in the courage that they demonstrated daily to stand inside and stand up for themselves. I think that there is no greater value when you understand your history, when you understand you.
AVA DUVERNAY: Well, I think it is a jaw-dropping thing that this piece of art can meet this cultural moment that’s so rich, that’s so robust, that’s so bursting with energy of people, amplifying their voices. This film is about voice; this film is about being heard. You know, we’re sitting here in this hotel doing interviews about how these marches changed the nation, while I hear people marching outside.
One of the things about making a film like this, a film about history, as a filmmaker that you fear is how do you make it immediate, how do make it textural, relevant, something that people can see themselves in? But we are experiencing these very things right now and the thought of that, the timing, although this film took a long time to get made, although once we were able to make it, we had to make it really quickly, 32 days to shoot and run, run, run, that the timing—
OW: It took a day and a half to shoot Bloody Sunday. A day and a half!
AD: Yes, yes. That the timing was all perfect. Like you always tell me, it was exactly what it should be, and I feel like this film, not to overstate it, but it is here for a reason in this moment, and we just hope, I think, that it can add to the conversation, to the energy that’s going on. What a vibrant time, I mean, in our adult lives, to be able to see the nation galvanized around these issues. I think it’s very exciting.
ANDRE HOLLAND: Jumping on what David said earlier, one of the things I found most remarkable about the experience was learning that there were so many people who were leaders in their own right. Andrew Young, John Lewis, Bevel, so many of them who were incredible leaders. I was born and raised in Birmingham and grew up very near the 16th Street Church. My family actually ran a funeral home that’s right across the street from the 16th Street Church, and my uncle used to always tell me stories about that time.
One of the many stories he told me was about a white man named Lamar Weaver, who had been protesting and helping with the movement. One night he was chased through the streets, all around Kelly Ingram Park, and ended up at the doorstep of the Pool Funeral Chapel. In order to keep him from being killed my uncle, Ernest, brought him into the funeral home and hid him in a casket in the back, so they couldn’t find him. So to bring these stories to life, not just the people everyone knows about, but the lesser known who also had such an instrumental part, made the entire experience very special.
Common, you were on a march the other day; can you talk about the relevance of this film to you?
COMMON: Well, it’s a beautiful honor to be a part of ‘Selma’ because as a kid I think the first person that I read about and came across that black people and white people both recognize, as a hero, was Dr. Martin Luther King. He was always somebody I really liked, looked up to. I realized that this peaceful protest is one of the strongest things you can do. A lot of people contributed to that [movement]. I was, like, I have to do more, I mean, learning about what they did, I got to do more. And now people are out there doing more. So I’m just grateful to be a part of it The revolution is here.
Tim, how did you deal with going to the dark side?
TIM ROTH: How do you deal with that? You got to tap into your inner racist, ‘cause everybody’s got one. But I went to my dad, who was a full-on leftie. He was an American man that went to England and fought for the British in WWII. When we were kids—my mum too was a full-on leftie—we were taken to demonstrations and we were throwing stones at skinheads and stuff. We were brought up that way, to be socially active. And King had a presence in our house, as well as Wallace. Wallace was a monstrous human being. It was a very flat, two-dimensional kind of animal, someone to loath, for good reason.
But when Ava came to me to have a go at this, what am I supposed to do? You’ve got to try and get a three-dimensional, walking sort of bag of bones. You’ve got to get that up and running. So I had to try and find some kind of humanity, something that I could latch onto. And the one thing I did, which is kind of similar to what David was talking about, was I looked at footage of him, the obvious stuff. Then there was a piece where his son was talking about him. His son was talking about him in a very different way, and I grabbed onto that, so I could find a little bit of humanity to thread in the limited amount of space that we had to deal with this guy. He’s horrible, which is fun. But we laughed a lot.
AD: Yeah, we did laugh.
TR: We really laughed.
AD: We laughed a lot.
TR: I mean, the more racist I was, the more she [Ava]laughed.
Oprah, when did you know people like Ava and David were game changers?
OW: I met David while doing ‘The Butler’ and he told me about this little film. I told him to give me Ava’s number and I told her we were going to be friends. I could feel from her countenance, from her spirit, that there was something inside her that I also had inside me, and I could see that in David. That’s why I befriended David on ‘The Butler,’ you know? When I was looking for girls for my school, I call it the ‘It factor’ and those who have it recognize it in others. I could sense from David a level of humility and a level of pure passion and desire to honor his calling, and the calling beyond just being an actor, but his calling as a human being, to honor what God had put him here to do.
I told him we were going to be friends. I could see that he is favored; he is favored from on high. I’ve had that favor, so I know what that looks like and I wanted to do whatever I could to elevate that. I could feel the same thing in Ava. And I think the part of my trajectory here on the planet has been to try to inspire and lift other people up. So when I saw that here was somebody who has that ‘it thing,’ I wanted to do everything in my power to lift that up, to bring light to that, to bring attention to that. And so, that’s what happened. And now, we’re just real buds, yeah. Really.
And what a friend Oyelowo has in Oprah. After the press conference he was asked if he would be doing more directing and producing he said, “Absolutely,” and would be bringing on Oprah and Ava. “I’ve been given a huge opportunity here and I’ve been shown how to get movies made. No one is going to tell your stories better than you, and no one’s going to be more passionate about your stories than you. So I think it behooves me to do just that,” Oyelowo vowed.
Syndicated Entertainment journalist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]