Interview: Selma’s Ava DuVernay & David Oyelowo

Fifty years after King led the fight for rights, race issues resonate

SELMA directed by Ava Duvernay, written by Paul Webb, with David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo and Tom Wilkinson. A Paramount release. 128 minutes. Opens Friday (January 9). For venues and times, see Movies.

The relationship between director and star is an intimate one.

When I ask David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King in Selma, the difference between working with Lee Daniels on The Butler and with Selma’s Ava DuVernay, he cites intimacy right away. And you definitely feel that connection when the star and director engage.

“The Butler is more of a sweep,” he says in his British accent. “I went from being a teenager to being a man in his 60s, but I was a supporting character.

“My relationship with Ava involved building the character from the beginning to the writing to being on the set together. It was very detailed, very layered, hours on the phone.

“With Lee it was like dating. This is more like a marriage.”

“And Lee has better hair than me,” interjects DuVernay, whose dreads are actually pretty great, no matter what she says. “And I don’t wear pyjamas.”

“Lee wears pyjamas on set all the time,” says Oyelowo.

“Can you imagine me in pyjamas? I have enough problems as it is,” laughs DuVernay.

Before the interview goes off the rails about sleepwear, I ask about the challenges DuVernay faced making the film. Selma may focus on the specific campaign in one city for black voters’ rights, but it has a much wider scope than her previous movies. 

“Any challenge I had was technical,” DuVernay allows. “I felt confident that I knew how to tell the story. My father’s from Selma. The man I love the most, who raised me and taught me how to be me, is from the very place the film is named after. I’m an African-American studies major from UCLA. I know the time.

“What I did not know was how to pull off an assault on a bridge with horses and tear gas and 500 extras. I knew I had to surround myself with folks who knew what they were doing, who would be collaborative with a woman director, a woman of colour.”

A week after our interview, DuVernay makes history by being the first black woman director nominated for a Golden Globe.

Any one of the first three scenes could have made a fine opening to the film. In the third, a black woman tries to register in the second, the Ku Klux Klan wreaks horrible violence. But DuVernay chose to open with King’s wife, Coretta, tying his ascot as he’s getting ready to receive his Nobel peace prize. 

“My main goal was to humanize King,” DuVernay explains. “He’s been relegated to a myth and sainthood, and I think that’s tragic. We were always trying to deconstruct him – and every man has to fiddle with his tie.”

That strategy of refusing to canonize King was crucial to Oyelowo’s ability to inhabit the role. 

“His faith was part of what compelled him to engage the way he did in terms of non-violence, in terms of life in the face of hate. And I relate to his faith. But we also talked a lot about making sure we humanized him. And being human is something I’m expert at.” 

The movie hits the screen just as the conversation about racism in America is intensifying in the wake of police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York City. But to DuVernay’s credit, she doesn’t have a pat rap about the subject.

“Our film is meeting a very robust cultural moment, and I feel very bruised and pained by things that are going on. Ferguson was the first blow, and then came the Eric Garner tragedy and lack of an indictment for the murder of a man caught on camera. It’s painful, it’s toxic. At the moment it’s hard to wrap my head around what Selma means as a piece of art.”

Interview Clips

Duvernay talks about Selma’s biggest challenges for her.

Oyelowo on the difference between directors Lee Daniels (The Butler) and Duvernay on set.

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