Secrets Behind the Making Of Selma
Ava DuVernay’s third feature film, Selma, nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards (and won for Best Original Song), is a cinematic masterpiece. Starring British actor David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., the performances in Selma leap off the screen and beautifully embody the spirit, impact and importance of the Civil Rights movement. And to think Selma was almost never made.
At least three other directors were attached to the film prior to Ava DuVernay, and Selma had been in limbo for years, even with Oyelowo attached to star. But it took Black women to bring the project to fruition – Ava, who not only directed but rewrote the script, and Oprah Winfrey, who produced and acted in the film. But let me not give away all of the secrets here. Read on to learn more exciting behind the scenes details about Selma.
It’s hard not to think of Selma as an Ava DuVernay film, but prior to her attachment, Lee Daniels was set to direct it. But he left the project to work on The Butler. Daniels wasn’t the first director involved with the project, however. Multiple directors were attached but clearly, Ava was the chosen one who made it all come together.
David Oyelowo’s Influence
Certainly Ms. DuVernay came correct but David Oyelowo, who worked with DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere, convinced the film’s producers to hire her to direct.
The 7-Year Itch
David Oyelowo had been attached to star in Selma for nearly seven years before it finally got the greenlight.
The MLK Look
To look more like Martin Luther King, Jr., David Oyelowo gained 30 pounds, grew a mustache and shaved back his hairline. How’s that for commitment?
You’ll see screenwriter Paul Webb’s name in the credits, but Ava DuVernay rewrote his original script when she came on board. You won’t see her name as writer or co-writer, however, because Webb’s writing contract allowed for him to retain sole credit if he so wanted.
The rights to Dr. King’s speeches were not granted to the film because they belonged to another project, so DuVernay had to rewrite them completely.
Prior to Selma, Ava DuVernay avoided biographical films because they tend to be “overly glossy and perfect.” But there’s a reason she said yes to Selma. “…the more I researched the story,” DuVernay revealed in an Oprah.com interview, “the more I was reminded—especially as a black woman—that who we are now is based on who we were then. It was time to tell this tale, with all of its imperfections and beauty.”
Playing Mahalia Jackson
Singer Ledisi discovered a lot about Mahalia Jackson while preparing to play her in Selma, and grew to respect the late singer even more. “I was so proud and afraid to play the part, because it’s such big shoes to fill. But when [costume designer] Ruth E. Carter put the costume on me, I just started crying. I said, “Oh wow, I’m no longer me. I’m Mahalia. I have to be her and hold up this banner of what she created.” She’s from New Orleans; I’m from New Orleans. We grew up in the same area. I visited her grave and thanked her and honored her. I really studied Mahalia and learned about her. I now fully appreciate and have a newfound respect for her. She did more than just sing.”
Oprah was initially only signed on as a producer for Selma, and only did so after being coaxed by David Oyelowo, whom she had become friends with while filming The Butler. Then Ava DuVernay suggested that Oprah play civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, who famously punched Selma Sheriff Jim Clark. Oprah – or rather, her The Color Purple character Sofia – famously punched the mayor’s wife in the film and the media mogul didn’t want to play another person who punches somebody out, but she said yes to the role when DuVernay informed her that Cooper used to watch The Oprah Winfrey Show every day while eating a tuna fish sandwich. Not only did Oprah have an opportunity to honor Cooper, she also wanted to honor the legacy of Dr. and Mrs. King.
Oprah’s first day on the set of Selma was the same day that Maya Angelou passed away. Ava told Oprah that her shoot date could be rescheduled, but Oprah insisted that she work. And she got a little help from friend Tyler Perry, who stopped by the set to help lift Oprah’s spirits.
Selma marked the second time that actress Carmen Ejogo played Coretta Scott King. The first time was in the HBO miniseries “Boycott.” In Selma, Ejogo took care to flesh out the late Scott King and present “a more human face.”
DuVernay took great pleasure in filming scenes on the bridge still named after Confederate general and KKK leader Edmund Pettus. She told 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon, “I imagined [Pettus] turning over in his grave a little bit [and him] thinking ‘where did it all go wrong? This was not supposed to happen.’”
When filming his scenes, actor Keith Stanfield, who played protestor and civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (who was shot and killed by a state trooper), denied the padding he was offered by crew members. Stanfield wanted the scene to be real but revealed that not having the pads was a mistake. He woke up the next day swollen and bruised.
In Paul Webb’s original script, President Lyndon B. Johnson weighed much more heavily in the film – so much so that it veered into white savior territory. But DuVernay wasn’t about to let that happen. She wanted the film to be a love letter to the people of Selma who rose up and fought. And that’s exactly what came from the end result.
“My Life Is Complete!”
Which actor uttered the words “My life is complete” after Oprah congratulated him on a job well done on set? That would be Keith Stanfield.