TheWrap Screening: ‘Selma’ Tackles ‘Timely’ Race Issues Say Cast, Director (Video)

Director Ava DuVernay and stars Common, Carmen Ejogo and Henry G. Sanders reveal why now is the perfect time to tell the story of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr

Ted Soqui

British actor David Oyelowo, who plays Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Golden Globe Best Picture-nominee “Selma,” was the “rainmaker” and “champion” of the film, director Ava DuVernay told TheWrap Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman on Thursday.

The film, nominated in four Golden Globe categories — for best picture, director, actor in a motion picture drama, and song — was screened at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles as the final 2014 installment in TheWrap Screening Series. “Selma” tells the story of three tumultuous months in 1965 Selma, Alabama, when King led activists and locals in protests against insidious efforts on the part of Gov. George Wallace and his administration to block the black vote in the state.

“I felt ‘called’ because David called me and said, ‘Will you come and make this film?’ This project begins and ends, for me, with David Oyelowo. He was an actor without a film; he had been cast in this film by Lee Daniels,” DuVernay said.

Lee Daniels went to go do ‘The Butler.’ David went and did that with him, but he had already previously been cast as King in ‘Selma,’ and so when ‘Selma’ didn’t have a director, he really did what few actors do: take their careers into their own hands and start making decisions on somebody else’s movie — and lobbied for me to come on board, wrote the producers, pitched the producers,” she explained.

“He recruited Ms. Winfrey, got her on board … not easy to bring in Oprah Winfrey,” DuVernay said of Oyelowo, who contends for the Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama award for his performance.

“That’s an actor who is really designing his own destiny,” she said, noting that Oyelowo is “deeply rooted” and fully inhabited the persona of King during filming. “He became another person in front of me. My friend disappeared before my eyes … That’s a major commitment: to wake up as King every day.”

DuVernay makes history with her best director Golden Globe nomination in being the first African-American female nominated in the category.

Actors Carmen Ejogo, Common and Henry G. Sanders, who play Coretta Scott King, James Bevel and Cager Lee, respectively, joined DuVernay to answer questions about the film. Common, who called making the film, “one of the most important experiences I’ve had in my life,” is up for Best Original Song, along with singer-composer John Legend, for “Glory” from the film.

“I always want my life to be purposeful. I want to be part of art that means something, that can impact the world in a positive way,” Common said. “Selma” is an extension of King’s legacy, he said. “This is what I’m grateful to be on this Earth for.”

Waxman noted that moments of great courage and drama emerge from the filmmakers’ willingness to show a warts-and-all view of King, who is presented as a man struggling with his own morality while tackling greater societal ills like the pervasive — and often deadly — racism in the South at the time.

“I certainly didn’t have any interest in deifying him,” DuVernay said, adding that a film about what most people know about King — “He had a dream, he believed in peace and then he died” — would have been boring. “He’s more than a street name, he’s more than a day you have off of work, he’s more than the name of your friend’s school.”

Due to licensing issues — another filmmaker holds rights to King’s speeches — DuVernay wrote the film’s speeches in the spirit of King’s famous “I have a dream” and “We shall overcome” speeches, including some of his key phrases.

“It’s a privilege to have a piece of art that speaks to this very robust moment that we’re all experiencing,” DuVernay said of the film’s relevance now. To the idea that “Selma” might be an answer to today’s troubled times, she said, “I really think ‘Selma’ is a question. It’s: ‘What now?’ … Are there any tactics and strategies from then that can be applied? Is there a maturation of those tactics and strategies that we can be looking to? Hopefully, it unlocks the door to some really radical ideas that have been kind of stored away in history books — and people are not reading those these days — and so hopefully, it triggers some kind of new energy around these ideas, which were really effective.”

Sanders thanked DuVernay for “Selma” being his “Civil Rights experience — a gift,” since he was in the service overseas in Europe and Vietnam during the movement and wasn’t in the States to be part of the moment. He said, “This is the crown jewel of my career.”

Ejogo noted that with the difficult period society finds itself facing now, the film is “incredibly timely.”

“I absolutely think it becomes this perfect convergence of art and life. This film is beautifully timely,” Ejogo said.

“Selma” opens in limited release on Christmas Day 2014 and expands on Jan. 9, 2015. Get more information at the film’s official site:

See video from the interview here.