A Vital Chapter Of American History On Film In 'Selma'

Dec 23, 2014
Originally published on January 19, 2015 8:20 pm

It's hard to believe, but there has never been a major motion picture that centers on one of this country's most iconic figures: Martin Luther King Jr. But that's about to change, with Selma, which opens Christmas Day.

The film explores the tumult and the tactics of the civil rights movement, from King's tense relationship with President Lyndon Johnson to the battle for voting rights for black Americans — a battle that reached a climax on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, as state police beat peaceful protesters trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of Selma.
Paramount Pictures

Director Ava DuVernay is a remarkable figure in Hollywood: a publicist-turned-director, and an African-American woman charged with telling one of the most important chapters of American history — but as she tells NPR's Michele Norris, she's no fan of the straight-up biopic. "I'm a little allergic to historical drama. On a Friday night I'm not rushing to the theater to watch your history drama ... and yet here I am." DuVernay adds that she wanted to make an epic that was closer to the ground, and she wanted audiences to feel the suffocating fear and violence felt by protesters on the bridge.


Interview Highlights

On her depiction of violence

Each time we show violence in the film, there's at least one setup, one shot that we slow down by tripling the frames. We slow it down to make you watch it — it's like the peak moment of the violence. You have to really be with the person who's been assaulted.

On finding the rhythms of King's speech

I just listened to him. So I would hike, here in Los Angeles, in the canyons here, and I would just walk and listen to his speeches. And I had no designs that I'd be able to get anywhere close to just the beauty and the nuance of his speech patterns. But there are some basic things that he does: He speaks in triplet a lot, so he, when he gets going, he'll say the thing three times in different ways. He had a couple of tricks that we were able to break down.

On Annie Cooper and avoiding an "eat your peas" history lesson about the struggle for voting rights.

Annie Lee Cooper was a woman who attempted to register to vote five times ... and she represents, you know, hundreds of people at that time that were attempting to vote, that were brave enough to withstand threats to their lives, to their livelihoods by walking into those places. So that is very poignant to me.

I hope that ... the illustration of that in flesh and blood, in a scene that feels dramatic, where you actually feel the emotion, will remind people that the right to vote was hard-won, and it should be handled with care and treated with the respect that it deserves.

On what she learned about America while promoting Selma

I've heard some shocking things. ... The other day, a young man walked up to one of my colleagues, he walked up and very earnestly said, "Thank you so much. I really never knew what 'MLK' meant." And my colleague said, oh, what he meant to the country? And he said, no, what the initials "MLK" stood for. We were in a suburb of Los Angeles, you know, in a mixed-race area, where this kid was apparently like 18 or 19. You know, you forget, you say "MLK" and to some people it's a holiday, it's a sale.


Online Exclusive: Personal history, the Bechdel test, and the story of Amelia Boynton

Lorraine Toussaint (left) plays Amelia Boynton — seen at right being cared for by an unnamed marcher after being knocked unconscious in a police attack on Selma protesters.
Left: Paramount Pictures/Right: Bettmann/Corbis

Amelia Boynton — played in the movie by Lorraine Toussaint — was among the planners of the voting rights demonstrations from Selma to the Alabama state capital. She and her husband, S.W. Boynton, had been early associates of King's. On Bloody Sunday, Boynton was knocked unconscious by police when she tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and her picture was widely published in newspapers across the country. In this exclusive online excerpt, filmmaker Ava DuVernay recalls her ties to Alabama, as well as her reasons for bringing activist women like Amelia Boynton and Annie Lee Cooper into the fabric of Selma.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the first time ever, there's a major motion picture that puts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at its center. The movie is "Selma," and it opens in select theaters on Christmas Day. The film explores the tumult and the tactics of the civil rights movement, from Dr. King's tense relationship with President Lyndon Johnson to the battle for voting rights for black Americans. It reached a climax in March of 1965 at an event remembered as Bloody Sunday when state police beat peaceful protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. NPR's Michele Norris recently spoke to Ava DuVernay, the director of "Selma."

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: And, David, Ava DuVernay is a remarkable figure in Hollywood - a publicist-turned-film-director, an African-American woman charged with telling one of the most important chapters in American history. She inherited this project after it bounced around Hollywood for years. And when we talked, I learned that Ava DuVernay is no big fan of the biopic.

AVA DUVERNAY: No, I'm a little allergic to the historical drama. On a Friday night, I'm not rushing to the theater to watch your history drama.

NORRIS: And yet here you are.

DUVERNAY: And yet here I am.

NORRIS: Ava DuVernay says she wanted to make an epic that was closer to the ground. She wanted audiences to feel the suffocating fear and the full brunt of violence against protesters on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Troopers advance.

DUVERNAY: I think it's important to understand what the violence does emotionally. So each time that we show violence in the film, there's at least one set-up or one shot that we slow down by tripling the frames. We slow it down...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

DUVERNAY: ...To make you watch it so at the peak moment of the violence...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

DUVERNAY: ...You have to really be with the person who's been assaulted.

NORRIS: More than just a director on this film, you made significant rewrites, and you had to work with some really tight parameters. You were not able to use Dr. King's actual words. So you had the unique challenge of trying to rewrite a Dr. King speech.

DUVERNAY: Yeah. (Laughter). That was daunting. The intellectual property wasn't available to us. And so the question was, do we allow the story to still go untold?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) No more...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk, and that is hard.

NORRIS: How do you find the rhythm of the speech because it's very specific?

DUVERNAY: Oh, I just listened to him. So I would hike here in Los Angeles, in the canyons here, and I would just walk and listen to his speeches. And I had no designs that I'd be able to get anywhere close to just the beauty and that nuance of his speech patterns.

But there are some basic things that he does. He speaks in triplet a lot. So when he gets going, he'll say the thing three times in different ways. He had a couple tricks that we were able to break down. And David Oyelowo, to have someone like David be able to bring that to just exceptional life and actually give those words a voice in the way that he does, when it's not mimicry, it's not impersonation, but it's the spirit of him.

NORRIS: You didn't want this film to feel like a finger-wagging, eat-your-peas history lesson. But it seems at the same time that you take pains to provide just that - a history lesson, to make sure that people understand the names of the people who were part of the civil rights movement, to make people understand the barriers to voting. And maybe to understand that, we can listen to a little bit of tape, a scene where Oprah Winfrey, playing Annie Lee Cooper, is trying to register to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Recite the Constitution's preamble. Do you know what a preamble is?

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How many County judges in Alabama?

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Sixty-seven.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Name them.

NORRIS: Ava, it's hard to listen to that tape in 2014 where so many people just sort of take for granted that you walk into a municipal building, fill out a form and walk out with your voter ID card.

DUVERNAY: Yes, yes, no it was important - that scene. Annie Lee Cooper was a woman who attempted to register five times. And she represents, you know, hundreds of people at the time that were attempting to vote, that were brave enough to withstand threats to their lives and to their livelihoods by walking into those places. And so that is very poignant to me. I hope that the illustration of that in flesh and blood, in a scene that feels dramatic where you actually feel the emotion, will remind people that the right to vote was hard-won and should be handled with care and treated with the respect that it deserves.

NORRIS: And as you've been out talking about this film, it seems like you've learned some interesting things about America in terms of, you know, what is history and how people remember it. As I understand, in actually talking to people about the film, you're discovering that in some cases people think that this is actually a film where Oprah Winfrey plays a character named Selma. They don't really understand what Selma represented as an important moment in American history.

DUVERNAY: Yeah, no, I mean, we've heard some shocking things, that being one of them. The other day a young man walked up to one of my colleagues. He walked up and very earnestly said, thank you so much. I really never knew what MLK meant. And my colleague said, oh, you know, what he meant to the country? He said, no, what the initials MLK stood for. We were in a suburb of Los Angeles, you know, in a mixed-race area where this kid was apparently, like, 18 or 19. You know, you forget you say MLK, and to some people, it's a holiday or a sale.

NORRIS: Ava Duvernay, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you.

DUVERNAY: Oh, thank you so much, Michele. I appreciate it.

GREENE: That's film director Ava DuVernay speaking with our colleague Michele Norris about the new movie "Selma." And if you want to hear more of their conversation, go to our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.