Ava DuVernay’s stirring drama is an ambitious retelling of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic struggle to enshrine voting rights for African-Americans.
In 2013, Ava DuVernay took the helm of a long-gestating studio project that became the ambitious 2015 retelling of the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic struggle to enshrine voting rights for African-Americans. In this stirring drama that plays like the Yin to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) Yang, David Oyelowo leads a marquee cast as Dr. King, the central figure in a high-stakes campaign of “negotiation, demonstration and resistance” that culminated in the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama which galvanised American public opinion and persuaded President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to introduce the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Despite a contractual obligation which saw Paul Webb receive sole credit as screenwriter, DuVernay signed on as director only after receiving assurances she would be free to do a rewrite, modifying Webb’s screenplay, which focused on backroom political manoeuvring, to more expansively represent the “band of brothers and sisters around King”. DuVernay also persuaded Oprah Winfrey (a producer on the film) to take the role of Alice Lee Cooper, a Selma-born civil rights activist subjected to a discriminatory voter registration process designed to thwart and demean her, which Winfrey plays with an affecting pathos that recalls her memorable screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985). Ava Duvernay became the first African-American woman director to have a film nominated in the Academy’s Best Picture category in the same year that spawned the #OscarsSoWhite backlash given the overall lack of diversity among nominees and DuVernay’s omission from the (all-male) Best Director list.
– Roberta Ciabarra - Curator, Film