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Ava DuVernay Rides the ‘Selma’ Surge

Ava DuVernay Rides the 'Selma' Surge

Selma” is the kind of historical biopic that is tougher than ever to get made in Hollywood today–even Steven Spielberg struggled to finance “Lincoln”– which makes it even more impressive that it opened at all. Given studio conventional wisdom that movies with African American subjects cannot be relied on to cross over domestically or play overseas, Ava DuVernay’s period epic had to be produced for less than $20 million, even with backing from French Pathe (which financed long-term development for Brad Pitt’s Plan B), Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo, and distributor Paramount (which funded a larger-than-50% portion of the film and acquired North American rights).
“Selma” and star David Oyelowo, who gives a towering performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, have been generating rousing reactions across the country since the 60s slice-of-life debuted November 11 at the AFI Fest. DuVernay had to make the decision two days before to show the locked final film (as opposed to 30 minutes) before the final mix was complete. She was under tremendous pressure as a black woman director tackling a major biopic, the first about Dr. Martin Luther King since his death 46 years ago. She didn’t want to mess it up. She wanted to come through: for the King family, the Civil Rights movement, African Americans, her backers, and movie audiences around the world. That she did.

Reviews are stellar, at 100% on the Tomatometer. Now the movie is coming up fast in the Oscar race. Oyelowo will compete for the fifth Best Actor slot with a number of robust competitors, from Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”) to Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). DuVernay could land a Best Director nomination to go with the first ever Golden Globe nomination for a black woman. And the film should wind up at the front of the Best Picture pack with “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” and “The Imitation Game.” 

Indeed, with a surge of extra momentum as the last-viewed Oscar contender (see: “Million Dollar Baby”), “Selma” could even unseat Best Picture favorite “Boyhood,” because the earnest Civil Rights drama boasts many of the Liberal bonafides that landed “12 Years a Slave” the Best Picture Oscar last year.

Also backed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, “Selma” was another labor of love for producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who developed it for seven years before finding the right director, DuVernay, whose 2012 Sundance director-prize-winning “Middle of Nowhere” also starred Oyelowo. Focused on the 1965 actions in Selma, Alabama that spurred President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to put through the Voting Rights Act, “Selma,” like “The Butler,” will certainly be a huge transformative hit with African American audiences, and on January 9 could cross over to the mainstream as well.
Oyelowo had long felt destined to play Dr. King and brought DuVernay and his “Butler” costar Winfrey onto the film. The British actor ably carries “Selma” as the driven Civil Rights leader who is determined to hold the president hostage via peaceful demonstrations –marred by traumatic violence from state troopers controlled by Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and local police, which was transmitted to the nation by the media. It’s exhilarating to see King stand up to the president. The entire supporting cast is strong, from Common to Winfrey as one of the marchers who is refused the right to vote. But the film really comes to life with King’s soaring oratory. His speeches are as moving and eloquent as ever.
Critics, Oscar voters and the public are rooting for “Selma,” which is elegantly lensed by rising cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”). Whatever its minor flaws, finally, it plays. Could the slow-paced film use a tighter edit and more rousing score? Sure. But it’s a heart-tugging winner.

Paramount is moving DuVernay and her posse around the country to support the release, from the AFI and the Castro in San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and New York. DuVernay is a marketing-savvy asset for the movie because she knows how to parlay social media, having run her own marketing and distribution company, which promoted movies like “Dreamgirls” and her own “Middle of Nowhere.” “They’re literally walking me around like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s,'” the director says on the phone from New York. “I don’t know where I am right now, what city I’m in, what day it is. I was the one doing Jennifer Hudson’s schedule. Now I’m the schedule. It’s another side of it; it’s good, I’m just riding the wave, trying to stay present.” 

The range of reaction to the film is wide, she says, depending on how much education and consciousness-raising is involved: “Some people who are walking in for entertainment get an education, they may not have an idea of what the history is, not knowing what Selma is at all. It’s lovely to take it around the country—we’ve screened it to a lot of living legends mentioned in the film, shared it with civil rights leaders who paved the way, like Diane Nash, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and Sidney Poitier, folks who were active in the movement. We’ve gotten really beautiful feedback, it’s thrilling.”
DuVernay is also riding the political swells, as “Selma” is resonating with America’s post-Ferguson zeitgeist. She’s coordinating with private social activists “to help with strategy building and community building responses.” At the Ziegfeld premiere in New York, DuVernay and her team used the event as a “rallying call to action for people who believe in justice and dignity,” she says. “You can’t kill a black man without repercussions, and that happened when the Eric Garner strangulation was caught on tape.” She coordinated a viral protest with her cast; Wendell Pierce paid for “I can’t breathe” T-shirts, while Tessa Thompson got them to the actors to wear on the night of the premiere. Corey Reynolds carried the box to the green room, with Oyelowo passing out the right sizes to everyone. “There was a beautiful spirit of solidarity,” says DuVernay, “amplifying our voices over this horrible issue.”
For DuVernay, whose father comes from the county that runs along the road from Selma to Montgomery–she remembers hearing his stories about snipers in trees picking off marchers–“to have made a piece of art that meets this cultural moment is a honor. I’m someone who has been working around issues of black lives for a while. It’s important to me, it’s part of the work that I do as a filmmaker and distributor, as a black woman from Compton California. These issues are ongoing and prominent in my life. It’s important to me that the film speaks to the moment the way it does. That it adds to the conversation is the biggest reward and recognition. That’s what I care about. I’m excited for January 9th when the film opens wide to regular people out of NY and LA and not just in the film industry. I want to hear what they think of the movie.”
After Plan B’s Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner went through a number of different directors (most recently Lee Daniels) who came to the project at different times with approaches that didn’t stick, Oyelowo asked DuVernay if she was interested in exploring the material. “It did work for me,” she says. 

DuVernay labored on the script knowing that writer Paul Webb had the contractual right to retain sole credit. Why? She had her own personal stakes in the story. Her overhaul included adding more about the key players in the Civil Rights movement. Yes it was King at the helm, says Gardner, “but it was King supported by this extraordinary group of men — almost boys. She wanted to show the strategy, debate, argument, and discussion of tactics. All of that is where this came from. You can’t strike a match and then ‘there it is.’ It comes out of thought and talk.”
The director also added the women: Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). “They weren’t in the kitchen,” says Gardner. “They were on the road, marching with their husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.” DuVernay also added more details of King’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering with LBJ. Some of these conversations required some dramatic license, as no one else was in the room, admits Gardner. “They did meet. The meetings happened, and the connect-the-dots of the legislation did happen.”

Some critics dispute the accuracy of the history. “Johnson is a complicated figure, historically,” says Kleiner. “He was an incredible idealist, progressive in some ways, and also a hard-nosed politician in some others. We think it’s true to the spirit of their relationship.”

DuVernay also included the alternatives to King, inside the movement: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) faction, and Malcolm X. “It was like real-time decision making, on the ground, on the fly, which makes us understand,” says Kleiner. “We can touch it, and maybe someone watching the film thinks they can do something of value and of greatness, like that.”

Oyelowo had felt destined to play King ever since he first read an early draft seven years ago. He came to meet DuVernay when he sat on an airplane next to a man who was reading a screenplay for “Middle of Nowhere,” which he had been asked to invest in, recalls Gardner: “The guy asked David, ‘Do you think I should do it?’ David said, ‘I don’t know. Give me the script; I’ll read it.’ Which he did. David then called Ava and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m an actor and I really want to be in your movie.'”

She cast him. Then Daniels introduced Oyelowo to Gardner and Kleiner, and put Oyelowo in “The Butler.” “David reveres him in such a deep, personal way that it was like a mission of his,” says Kleiner, “even years and years before he was put into the cast.”

In turn, Oyelowo brought in his “Butler” costar Oprah Winfrey, showing her an early audition tape of himself as King. It was enough to persuade her to help the movie. “She was on every phone call, on every frame of dailies, on every cost-report call,” says Gardner. “She watched every audition, every cut. Just like, ‘Hello, partner.’ Amazing.”

Oyelowo gained 30 pounds to play King, moved his hairline and changed his language. He agreed with DuVernay that the movie had to be about Dr. King, the man, not Dr. King, the myth. He had the great benefit of home movies that Andrew Young and John Lewis showed him; he traveled to Boston and Atlanta, to add those influences to his dialogue. The speeches are awe-inspiring. “There’s a sense of hope, and there’s a sense of possibility in what human beings can do, and it’s mobilizing,” says Kleiner. “So there’s idealism and there’s belief, and yet there’s also a sense of the cost, the sacrifice, the reality, the violence, the evil that men do. The movie was able to capture both of those sides.”
The film was executed in 33 days for less than $20 million. “Did I have an idea of how to get the film done for a limited amount of money?” asks DuVernay. “The unsung hero is Paul Garnes, my producing partner in Atlanta, who was able to use the tax credit and his resources as a workhorse producer in Atlanta to get it done on a budget, to bring those crews on board and get the right people around it.”

The film shot in Atlanta with one week in Alabama and wrapped on July 3 of this year. Then DuVernay and the producers “were in a race unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” says Gardner. “We had so many things to deal with.” Paramount in an effort to help them meet the intense finishing deadline put every department on the film, from visual effects and music to post-production. “There was no margin for error,” says Gardner. “And they said, ‘Let’s roll the dice.'”

Why didn’t the other versions move ahead? “They didn’t prove themselves to be so undeniable that they had to exist,” says Kleiner. “The alchemy of this director and her particular perspective of the themes that were inside of the story unlocked the potential and made it into this undeniable organism.”

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