A preview of the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma

Thunderous applause greeted the six-minute snippet screened at the BronzeLens Film Festival.
David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in Selma.

Courtesy Allied and Paramount Pictures

Even by eager-to-please Atlanta standards, a new standing ovation record may have been set at Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema during October’s BronzeLens Film Festival. After seeing just six minutes of Selma, Paramount Pictures’ upcoming drama chronicling MLK and the 1965 Alabama voting rights campaign, the crowd rose and applauded wildly for director Ava DuVernay as she took the stage with the film’s executive producer Paul Garnes.

Director DuVernay and executive producer Garnes discuss Selma during a screening at the BronzeLens Film Festival.
Director DuVernay and executive producer Garnes discuss Selma during a screening at the BronzeLens Film Festival.

Courtesy Allied and Paramount Pictures

In the audience’s defense, the sequence (that had yet to be color corrected or sound edited) was riveting. The scene takes place in the social hall of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama. Two Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee college students are being taken to task by Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Reverend C.T. Vivian (played by Corey Reynolds) as Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) looks on. And then a voice from the back of the room speaks. “That’s enough,” reprimands Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). “Enough of this, now. I don’t have time for this. None of us got the time for this. The way our organization works is simple. We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist. We raise white consciousness. And in particular, the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be sitting in the Oval Office.”

The scene captures the tensions that existed between the boots-on-the-ground, grassroots oriented SNCC and the “headline-grabbing, hit and run tactics” of the SCLC as King compatriot (and onetime SNCC leader) John Lewis described it in his memoir Walking With the Wind. The scene ends with King asking the two SNCC workers whether they would characterize the local sheriff Jim Clark more as a law abiding segregationist like Albany sheriff Laurie Pritchett or more like Birmingham’s fire hose wielding, attack dog Bull Connor.

“Bull Connor,” one of the students replies. “Bingo!” shouts an SNCC worker, sliding a row of navy beans across a cardboard Bingo card. The clip ended with King leading a group of protesters descending on and then sitting down in front of the Dallas County Courthouse. One of the tiny specks in the sea of extras baking in last summer’s heat in the courthouse scene’s wide shot? Oprah Winfrey, playing motel maid and activist Annie Lee Cooper. Winfrey and Brad Pitt are producers on the film.

In addition to artfully capturing the off-camera complexities and heated emotions of movement, the brief sequence also demonstrated DuVernay’s attention to 1965 period detail. From the choir music stands piled in a corner, to Coretta’s gloves to Martin’s tie clip (the film’s costume designer is two-time Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter), down to the wax paper Dixie Cup on a table, the film effectively transports viewers to the era. Oyelowo, meanwhile, eerily captures both the Southern drawl and steady cadence of King’s speaking voice (to play MLK, the actor gained 30 pounds and shaved back his hairline).

But as Garnes explained during the Q&A, the process began with words. He explained: “When this opportunity first came up, Ava and I talked about how you go about making a movie about the civil rights movement, but more importantly, how do you make a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr? How do you avoid that homogenized view and get down to the nitty gritty? It all starts with a script that the actors want to engage in, that a production company wants to engage in. Ava gave us that script.”

DuVernay returns to her Los Angeles film editing room today. Selma, opens in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day and nationwide on January 9, 2015.