A cross, constructed entirely of lightbulbs, shines behind David Oyelowo as he approaches the pulpit of Atlanta’s 145-year-old Wheat Street Baptist Church. It’s a steamy June night, and 500 extras — including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a key architect of the civil rights movement — eagerly await the British-born actor’s first attempt to preach as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But just as director Ava DuVernay puts on her headphones and does a last sound check, a freak lightning storm threatens the safety of the crew and forces the production to shut down.
Delays are nothing new in the long saga of bringing MLK’s life to the big screen. Despite the success of Hollywood movies focused on African-American figures Malcolm X, Ray Charles, and, most recently, Jackie Robinson and James Brown, it took the work of a relatively unknown female director, a British actor, and Oprah Winfrey to make an MLK biopic finally happen. Selma chronicles the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader during three intense months in 1965, from the ”Bloody Sunday” assault on protesters to the historic march through Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The film will have an Academy run in December before rolling out nationwide by MLK weekend in January, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the events it depicts.
”My vision was surrounding King with the band of brothers and sisters that got him to where he was,” says DuVernay, who won the Best Director prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere, starring Oyelowo. ”You see King’s vulnerability, you see when he gets angry, you see the complexity. But part of the complexity is he didn’t do it alone. This is a film that shows a black community that activated a nation to come together behind what was right.”
British screenwriter Paul Webb wrote the first draft of Selma back in 2007, centering on King’s contentious relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. (DuVernay shifted the focus to a more intimate look at the hero, including his complicated relationship with his wife, Coretta, played by The Purge: Anarchy’s Carmen Ejogo.) Directors as varied as Paul Haggis, Spike Lee, and Stephen Frears circled the project. Lee Daniels signed on to direct in 2010, casting Oyelowo in the lead after hiring the actor for The Paperboy.
For his part, Oyelowo says he was undaunted by the challenge of playing one of the most famous men in history. ”It’s never felt like a movie,” he says. ”It’s always felt like an appointment. It felt like a calling.” He also proved instrumental in putting Selma together when Daniels backed out to avoid tackling another civil rights story so soon after The Butler, in which Oyelowo played the firebrand son of Forest Whitaker’s title character. The actor suggested his Middle of Nowhere director for the job, then recruited his Butler costar Oprah Winfrey to produce — which helped secure a green light from Paramount. Winfrey also agreed to take a small role as Annie Lee Cooper, an activist who was beaten in her quest to vote. ”If [the right to vote] didn’t happen, there wouldn’t have been an Oprah Winfrey,” says DuVernay. ”There was a poetry to seeing Oprah walk down that hallway of the registrar’s office only to be rejected and told to sit her black butt down.”
Back at the Wheat Street Baptist Church, it’s nearing midnight and the cameras are finally ready to roll. Oyelowo again takes the pulpit, dressed in a gray suit and a yellow tie. After gaining 30 pounds, shaving his hairline, and growing a mustache, the actor bears a spooky resemblance to King. His voice begins to crescendo until the crowd is on its feet, revved up by his demand for voting rights. ”We will not wait any longer! Give us the vote!” he shouts. DuVernay calls ”Cut!” She runs up clapping, headphones still on, a huge smile across her face. The cast, crew, and extras stand to applaud Oyelowo.
Later that night, Oyelowo, as King, recites a eulogy for slain activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) — a solemn event that Lewis witnessed firsthand. ”It started raining the day of the funeral — just like tonight,” Lewis says. ”And when David was getting up there, my mind kept going back to Dr. King standing in that little country church right outside of Selma.”