This June, Ava DuVernay, director of Selma—the long-delayed movie about a pivotal period in the life of Martin Luther King Jr.—stood at the front of historic Wheat Street Baptist Church. She was preparing for a scene featuring Stephan James, the Canadian actor who plays civil rights legend John Lewis. “My back was turned to the door when suddenly Stephan’s eyes got big,” DuVernay said. “I turned around and John Lewis was standing there. Our mouths just opened. He’s a small man but with big energy and a big aura.”
“Hey guys, I don’t want to interrupt what you’re doing. I just wanted to say hi,” said Lewis, now a Georgia congressman. He walked up to James and asked, “Is he supposed to be me?” As the cast and crew crowded around Lewis, DuVernay began to cry. “It was a really beautiful thing.”
The movie focuses on a few months in early 1965, including the Bloody Sunday encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which left Lewis beaten and bloodied and prompted the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was filmed here and in Alabama this summer.
Although the shoot was fast, the genesis of Selma was lengthy. The project began in 2007, but the screenplay’s focus shifted—from King’s dealings with President Lyndon Johnson to his relationships with his inner circle and his wife, Coretta. Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) had been attached as director, but the task went to DuVernay when she was suggested by star David Oyelowo, on board to play MLK since the film’s inception. DuVernay, an independent filmmaker, won the best director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere and directed the 2010 documentary about women in hip-hop My Mic Sounds Nice. Oyelowo also wooed a considerably higher-profile partner: his Butler costar Oprah Winfrey. She is a producer and plays a minor role as activist Annie Lee Cooper.
The King heirs, notoriously controlling of his image, were not involved in Selma. Working around the family seems to have expedited the movie, which makes it to the big screen ahead of a planned Steven Spielberg–produced biopic authorized by the Kings.
That project has hit numerous snags, including the departure of director Oliver Stone earlier this year.
On the calendar: Selma opens in limited release on December 25.
This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.