Friday, November 21, 2014

SELMA (2014)—Q&A With Director Ava DuVernay, Actor David Oyelowo, and Producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner & Jeremy Kleiner

On Sunday, November 16, 2014, I attended an advance screening of Ava DuVernay's Selma (2014) at the Castro Theatre, co-presented by Paramount Studios and the San Francisco Film Society. Only the second screening of the film after its celebrated premiere the week before at AFI Fest, Selma is an eleventh hour entry in the Oscars® race with projected nominations for its director (only four other women have ever been nominated in this category), its lead actor, David Oyelowo, in the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, and its supporting actors Tom Wilkinson (as President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Oprah Winfrey (as Annie Lee Cooper). Following the screening, director Ava DuVernay, lead actor David Oyelowo, and producers Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Oprah Winfrey participated in an on-stage conversation, moderated by Elvis Mitchell.

Mitchell kicked off the discussion by asking Oyelowo about the last speech in the film delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama after the march from Selma. He asked Oyelowo to recall what he felt hearing that speech for the first time and what it meant for him to enact it?

Oyelowo responded that he had an odd experience playing the role of King, which crystallized for him in that admittedly brilliant speech, written by Ava DuVernay. (The filmmakers did not have the rights to King's actual speeches so DuVernay had to write "sound-alike" speeches.) The role was odd for him because there was a spiritual transference in the two days running up to filming that particular speech. He experienced a bizarre fear of being assassinated. "It's true," he said.

Photo: Daniel Bergeron / Indiewire
He and Ava scouted the location where the speech was to be filmed, which was the exact same spot where Dr. King gave his speech. A platform had been set up with a lectern on it, but it didn't feel right to the stage crew so they went across the street to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to ask if they could use their pulpit, which they felt would be more appropriate. The Church said no, they couldn't use their pulpit, but offered instead a pulpit they had found two days previously in the basement. The crew accepted the pulpit, placed it on the platform, and discovered by comparing it with photographs taken of the historical speech that it was, indeed, the exact same pulpit used by Dr. King during his speech. Such serendipities happened time and again during the shooting of the film, Oyelowo insisted.

Oyelowo was well-aware that King's life was severely under threat giving that speech. King was told time and again, "We know there are people who want to do you harm if you give that speech." Oyelowo had researched and placed himself within King's atmosphere so much that he was surprised at the end of the day after filming the speech that he was still alive. Admitting that was perhaps a strange thing to say, he nonetheless still feels fear and anxiety whenever he watches that sequence.

Mitchell quoted a line at the end of John Lewis's memoir on the movement: "The road to Selma was the last acts of non-violence." Being from Detroit, he felt a chill go through him when he saw Viola Liuzzo's name come up on the screen because he knew what happened to her. (Liuzzo, a Unitarian civil rights activist from Detroit who responded to King's call for assistance, was shot to death by Klansmen no less than a few hours after his speech while she was shuttling people to the Montgomery airport.)

Mitchell complimented DuVernay for capturing that every movement is like a family and—as with any family—there will be disagreements. DuVernay stressed that it was absolutely crucial when discussing the life of Dr. King to recognize he was not a monolith. He did not accomplish what he accomplished alone. He was a part of a huge, robust clan of brothers and sisters, really smart people, many of who could have just as easily been the leader of the movement. Except one of them was an extraordinary orator as well and they were able to lift him up and have him guide the way. It's astonishing how much support King had, yet within that support there was a disagreement on how to go about certain acts. It's precisely the strategy of the movement that fascinates DuVernay. As an African American major at UCLA, whenever she heard a speech by King she considered what went into what was said. Of course, the march to Selma happened, but to get behind and underneath what that was about and why, the tactics, was what fascinated her and—when taking on a project as large as this—she figured there were two ways she could do it. She could do it fact-based and follow the rules or try to enter what interested her personally and create something a little more textured. Luckily, she had partners who were behind her and on board with approaching the subject a bit differently.

Mitchell approached Winfrey about the responsibility she felt taking on the portrayal of Annie Lee Cooper, a powerhouse figure of the early Civil Rights movement infamous for punching Selma sheriff Jim Clark. Winfrey said she had been reluctant to accept the role because—even though she's only done a few films—in every film it seems she has to hit somebody. But there was no getting around it. The woman was a fighter who knocked sheriff Clark down and had to be apprehended by two sets of handcuffs. The photo of her being straddled by the sheriff and his deputies and beaten with his billy club shocked the American public into awareness. Even Dr. King himself understood when he talked about the incident in his famous Brown Chapel speech: "Mrs. Cooper was down in that line. As you know, we teach a philosophy of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth of the situation is that Mrs. Cooper, if she did anything, was provoked by Sheriff Clark."

Winfrey's initial reluctance diminished after reading an article on Cooper sent her by DuVernay. She discovered Cooper lived to be 100, recently passing in 2010, and that she loved watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Ava lobbied, "Don't you think she would be so honored and pleased to know that someone she watched all those years is actually going to try to take her life and bring it to life on screen?" That's when Oprah knew she had to do it.

As she was doing the role, Oprah thought not just about Cooper's life and story, and how many times she tried to vote, but how Annie Lee Cooper represents why there needed to be a movement in the first place. She represents everybody's mother, sister, aunt, and cousin who tried and had the will to keep getting up—though being continuously humiliated—to try again and again. That sense of determination and humility is what she tried to bring to the role.

Mitchell observed that—in watching Oyelowo's evolving acting career—his performances reveal a keen skill for silences. With the portrayal of Martin Luther King, however, and the familiarity audiences have with the tenor and power of King's voice, Mitchell considered it a brave creative decision to focus on and allow so many silences in the film to characterize King. Specifically, he referenced the scene where King phones Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing and then listens with so much emotion registering on his face. Mitchell wondered how much of that DuVernay had written into the script or how much had been worked out with Oyelowo during rehearsal and production?

Oyelowo recalled that he and DuVernay had previously worked together on a film called Middle of Nowhere (2012). He had met her through her writing. He read that script—and there were several silences written into that script—and was impressed with her ability to depict the human experience of life. Between the writing and how she drew a performance out of him on film, he knew she had to be the one to direct a film on King because—although we all know King as an icon, as a historical figure, and as a sound byte ("I have a dream…")—the remotest chance of doing him justice on screen would require knowing the human man behind the icon: his guilt, his fear, being a father, being a husband, all the qualities that wouldn't necessarily be seen in a documentary or read in a book. In his experience thus far no one comes close to mining that out of characters than DuVernay.

DuVernay added it was the creative decision of the team to deconstruct the myth of Martin Luther King. There was no further need for mythmaking; that had been done. King was not a speech. He was not a statue. He was not a holiday. He was a brother from the branch. His father was a preacher. His father's father was a preacher. He didn't really want to be a preacher, but it was the family business. Somewhere in there he had to find his way. He went to Boston. He met Carlotta (who, incidentally, was a little older than him; something DuVernay never knew until she started researching him). They moved to Alabama instead of Atlanta to get away from his Dad. All this becomes interesting when you break him down as a man and, within that, he's an amazing orator, does amazing things, and changed the face of the world. But it's even more interesting when you recognize that—when he came home—he had to take out the trash. That was his chore. And when he couldn't remember where the trash bags were, Carlotta had every right to give him the look she gave him. It's important to know these little things. It's important to know that he had marital problems. And that he had a little bit of an ego problem when it came to Malcolm X. His is just another story; but, as a creative team, they decided to approach his story as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.

Turning to Gardner and Kleiner, Mitchell asked if there were many changes that were wrought once DuVernay and Oyelowo signed on? Yes, Gardner confirmed, there were. She and Kleiner had already been with the project for about eight years; but, it never got off its feet or found purchase. Apologizing for sounding a little "meta-crazy", Gardner believes movies talk back to you when they're ready. They met Oyelowo, who introduced them to DuVernay, and from there they watched the movie come into its own. It had an engine, momentum and life that it had never had before. If you're patient enough to watch that happen, it's one of the joys of the job, Gardner related.

Kleiner added that their company has been very taken by the figure of Dr. King for a long time. In his case, even as a child at five or six, he remembered thinking about this person, reading about him, and going into deep research about him at certain stages of his life. His attraction was similar to DuVernay's; he was caught up in the human being behind the icon. The more he researched King, the deeper King's psychological life became alongside his physical struggle. He expressed pride in what DuVernay and Oyelowo have accomplished in capturing the depth and shades and the highs and lows of this person.

Mitchell then asked the team which scene they shot first? DuVernay replied that the first scene they shot was the jail sequence where King was upset about Malcolm X. She turned in that footage because her cinematographer Bradford Young wanted to shoot the darkest scene first to make sure they could see black people in the dark. That scene and the conversation between King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) where they're quoting Matthew, were a litmus test in terms of lighting, etc.

Photo: Bruce Davidson
Oyelowo added that the scene between he and Domingo was also special because, along with acting together in The Butler, they also played the two black soldiers at the beginning of Lincoln. It was Bradford Young who pointed out to Oyelowo as he and Domingo sat on the bunk in the jail, "I think I've seen this before." At that moment Oyelowo realized that the early scene in Lincoln was set in 1865 and his character was saying to the President of the United States, "When are we going to get the vote?" Then here they were in 1965 discussing, "What are we doing? Are we going to get the vote?" It crystallized the painful injustice but necessitous nature of the journey. They were two actors who were given the chance to represent the same problem 100 years apart. So even though it was the first day of shooting, Oyelowo recognized straight off that they were doing something special.

Mitchell then commented upon the weight Oyelowo gained to fit the role and how he could hear how the weight affected his breathing and helped him move away from his own British accent to capture the sound of King's voice. Oyelowo said his kids had great fun with the extra weight and would laugh whenever he would grunt to bend over to pick up something.

Oyelowo then gave credit to Winfrey, with whom he worked on The Butler, for believing in him. She made that clear to him early on so he shared his dreams with her, foremost being his desire to play Dr. Martin Luther King. He delivered a recording to her where he recited one of Dr. King's speeches. Winfrey said, "Hmmmm. I can see it. Not there yet; but, I can see it." She told him, "You are going to have to go deep." Oyelowo was aware that would involve not only physical, emotional, and mental depth, but spiritual depth as well, because King's engine was spiritual.

Photo: Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP
"I have never given myself over to anything quite as much as this," Oyelowo explained. By doing so, there were by-products he didn't expect. Just to put himself into the mind set of someone who had received so many death threats; being 28 days in any given month away from home, with the weight of the world literally on his shoulders; knowing that the campaign in Selma was dependent upon violence being wrought on people as the only way for the world to see what was going on in Alabama—that they had to turn the cameras on, shake the nest, and hope something would happen—and then when something did happen, bearing the weight of those consequences. All of that did, indeed, bear a physical weight, but there was also an emotional weight, which Oyelowo felt even more. It was difficult for him and scared him because he had to go to dark places in his head where the notion of feeling he might himself be assassinated came into play. He stopped short of asking DuVernay to sweep the buildings near the shoot to make sure some crazy person wasn't lying in wait with a rifle.

Mitchell noted that—though it might seem like a simple thing—so many movies about history sidestep the use of the word "negro", whose inclusion carries significant weight. He wondered if there was difficulty including it in the film?

As one of the producers of Selma, Winfrey was on board with using the word "negro" because—as someone who was born in 1954 and grew up in the South during that time (she was 9-10 years old during these events)—she understood the important nuance between saying "negro" and "black" and had a keen ear for it. Even in the scene where John Lewis was crossing the bridge and said, "Where I come from there are no 'black' people", Winfrey asked DuVernay, "Ava, what do you think? Would he be saying 'black' or would he be saying 'negro'?" Winfrey was very much aware growing up within her own family when the word 'black' appeared. Suddenly they were black people, when they had been negroes. Her father protested, "We're not black people; we're negroes." He didn't like the radical associations with the word "black" in the '60s, and so Winfrey grew up conscious of who was saying that word, what age they were, and whether they were a part of the movement of young people who were out on the forefront of it. "Black" was more accessible to them than to others, like her family.

Mitchell asserted that proper usage of "negro" textured the film and that—for certain members of the audience—it would sound like a bell ringing. At that point, even John Lewis who had been considered something of a radical had moved to the middle and was being called up for being square. Mitchell asked the producers if they understood the necessary texture this unacknowledged glossary of appellatives added to the film?

Gardner said as producers they committed to a script that was authentic, where verisimilitude was important, and there was not going to be a version of DuVernay's movie that wasn't authentic. Therefore, people had to say what they said and do what they did and behave as they behaved. Discomfort be damned. That was the point. Their partners at Paramount were awesome and never stuttered with that stuff. (Not for long anyways.)

Mitchell asked what each of them felt when they finally saw the finished film? Kleiner answered that there was a tremendous responsibility in taking the project on and he believes DuVernay's film does right by history and the intentions of the film and so he was nothing but moved when he saw the complete version and humbled to be a part of it. Gardner agreed that there was so much in this movie that was singularly from DuVernay's heart and soul, not only her representation of the movement, but her representation of women within the movement, and all the flaws and fractures within the movement, let alone the critical notion that King was a human being who was equally flawed, and the hope that notion actually gave to audience members: "Oh, I can protest. I can be a flawed human being and still make a difference."

For Winfrey, wrapping up the film involved multiple layers of emotions. First of all, she was honored to be working with Gardner and Kleiner and Plan B Entertainment. She'd never taken on such a project as a producer and she did so because Oyelowo asked her to. She was happy to be a part of it, but from the very beginning, from the moment she saw the little bit Oyelowo had shared with her on his iPhone, as his friend she wanted to help his dream become reality. So the first time she saw the film, she could only see Oyelowo. She was so happy that he got to fulfill his dream. Then when she watched the film as a producer and was supposed to be taking notes, she was crying the whole time and didn't know if she was supposed to be doing that. Was it professional for a producer to cry? She'd look over at Gardner and didn't see her crying so she would try to stop herself. But she couldn't help it. She found herself hugging the editor. Then she wasn't sure if she was supposed to be hugging the editor. So, for her it was layers of emotion, first for David, then because her great fortune was that she was born in Mississippi but got out by the time she was six years old. She never had to spend a day in a segregated school. She never had to spend time in an environment going to a school where people would make her feel less than. But she has carried with her the stories of her people. She grew up being a student of it and understanding that everything that had ever happened to her happened because of the Annie Lee Coopers and people whose names will never be known who had the courage to keep standing. When she watched the end credits folding in to what they actually filmed, she felt herself a part of every single person who was a part of the movement and created a life where now Ava Duvernay could direct this film when, at that time, they would never have imagined such a thing: the right to fulfill and express the vision of their lives. She was thinking of all those things while she was watching the film and that's why she was blubbering to the side.

As for DuVernay, she argued that for her the film was still not finished and so she couldn't answer Mitchell's question. She hadn't had that moment yet. (As of the onstage conversation, the film was due to be finished the following Friday. Visual effects and color correction have yet to be done.) The film is not finished in her mind so that—when she sees what others are calling the finished film—what she sees is all of her friends. She sees Bradford Young's cinematography. She sees Spencer Averick's editing and recalls how they started out editing on his little Ikea set in his apartment with his roommate standing at the door. She sees Morgan Rhodes, the music supervisor. She sees Aisha Coley who sat with her through all the auditions and made extraordinary choices casting the roles. So that's what she sees right now. She doesn't see the whole yet because she's still in it, still wrapping it, and for her it's not done. For this second screening she came in about half way through, stood in the back, and watched the audience's faces tilted up at the light on the Castro screen, which for her was immensely moving because they all looked so beautiful. She heard their laughter, could see their tears, could feel when they were uncomfortable, and that's a filmmaker's dream come true: to tell a story of these great people and have an audience hear and see this later in San Francisco, in this theater, on this street. "That's why we do it," she concluded.

As stated earlier by Winfrey, Selma was a dream realized for Oyelowo. He had first read the script in July 2007. He and his wife had just moved from the U.K. to Los Angeles with the dream of being in movies. He felt a higher power telling him he was going to play Dr. King in the film Selma. The feeling was so bizarre that he wrote about it in his diary: "Me, an English actor who has done nothing here. What am I thinking?" Mitchell asked Oyelowo if Oprah wasn't the higher power he heard? "Now that you mention it," Oyelowo laughed. He credited Oprah with certainly being part of His plan.

It was a visceral, spiritual, deep knowing that didn't leave him for seven years. Every day since that day he was determined to move the needle to get him to the point where he would get to be somehow a part of this incredible journey. The director at the time didn't agree with his higher power and didn't cast him. But the project went from a director who didn't want him to a director who he loved and who he could suggest.

Oyelowo finished up by saying that his name in the Yoruba language of Nigeria, where he is from, means "a king deserves respect." So, a dream realized.

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