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SELMA: Find out more about the production


Lyndon Johnson:
Meet me half way on this, Martin.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
I can’t.

Can’t or won’t?

I came here prepared to talk to you about people. People are dying in the street for this. Punished for wanting, for needing, to participate in the American political process. It cannot wait, sir.

Selma_WeMarchIn spring of 1965, a series of dramatic events changed the course of America and the modern concept of civil rights forever — as courageous marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., attempted three times to carry out a peaceful procession from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama on a quest for the basic human right to vote. The shocking confrontations, the triumphant final march and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that followed are now an indelible part of history. But the vitally relevant, vitally human story of Selma – from the political battles in the halls of power to the grit and faith of people on the street to the private, inner struggles Dr. King faced – has never been seen on the movie screen.

Ava DuVernay’s Selma, brings the power of all that went into creating that hard-won moment of long awaited justice to cinema with an uncompromising immediacy. The film chronicles a string of astonishing historical details, large and small — including the intense, adversarial relationship between Dr. King and President Lyndon Johnson, the troubling involvement of the FBI and the unbreakable spirit of ordinary men and women who sacrificed and united around voting rights. But what emerged from these stark details is a vivid tapestry of an American turning point in the making and the stirring journey of a man finding his way through doubts and daunting obstacles towards not just leadership but the togetherness required to make real change in the world.

Says DuVernay, a director who hails from the independent film world and whose family hails from Selma_Ava_DuvernayAlabama: “Selma is a story about voice – the voice of a great leader; the voice of a community that triumphs despite turmoil; and the voice of a nation striving to grow into a better society. I hope the film reminds us that all voices are valuable and worthy of being heard.”

Given the remarkable fact that no major motion picture to date has focused on any aspect of the life of Dr. King, nor on the voting rights movement, DuVernay felt there was a burning need for this story to be told. At the same time, she wanted to strip away the veneer of an untouchable icon and bring Dr. King to life as a flesh-and-blood man – a man with flaws and uncertainties but also with a fortitude and fire that was bolstered by the striving of people around him.

“I do find it surprising and worthy of conversation that, in the 50 years since Dr. King’s death, there has never been a feature film focusing on him as the protagonist. That’s a jaw-dropper,” says the director. “It’s kind of strange and unfortunate, but I am glad we are here now.”

While Dr. King’s story is central to Selma, DuVernay expands the story outward to the men and women, who played crucial roles in building, sustaining and carrying forward the movement. She wanted to lay bare not just these seminal events but also the rich personal dynamics behind those events.

“We tend to think of King as a statue, or a speech, or a holiday, but he was a man, a man who had complicated relationships, who was very human, and a man who died at the age of 39 fighting for freedoms we all enjoy. I think when you de-construct the myth of him, you realize that his inner strength is something that all of us have. If we could just tap into it, we could do great things,” DuVernay explains.

Paramount Pictures, Pathé and Harpo Films present Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Cuba Gooding Jr., with Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey as “Annie Lee Cooper.” The producers are Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner. The executive producers are Brad Pitt, Cameron McCracken, Diarmuid McKeown, Nan Morales, Nik Brower, Paul Garnes and DuVernay. The behind-the-scenes team includes cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pariah), editor Spencer Averick (Middle of Nowhere), production designer Mark Friedberg (Noah) and two-time Oscar® nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Malcolm X).

The Dream of Voting Rights
On March 7, 1965, Americans watching Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg on TV were stunned as the news cut in with harrowing images of violence in the here-and-now at home. In Selma, Alabama, local and state troopers had just assaulted marchers seeking the equal right to vote for all Americans, resulting in scores of injuries and a portrait of 20th Century repression that shamed and angered many. It would become a watershed moment that thrust a century-long fight towards accelerated victory.

The right to vote was first guaranteed to black Americans (or at least black males) in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment; but for nearly 100 years after, and for decades after suffrage, that right was systematically obstructed in many places across the nation. (Even now, voting rights remain contentious with portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 having been struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and new voter ID laws sparking heated debate over the impact on voter participation.)

By the early 1960s, things were particularly bad in portions of the South – especially in Alabama, which had become a flashpoint for civil rights battles since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery. Throughout the state, black citizens applying to vote were repeatedly blocked by local registrars – known to give impromptu literacy and civics tests featuring absurdly difficult questions designed to fail all takers. Furthermore, widespread poll taxes discouraged the poor and penalized those who chose to vote even if they succeeded in getting registered. By 1965, there were counties in Alabama where not a single black person had voted in any election for the previous 50 years.

In Selma – where only 130 of 15,000 black citizens were registered – citizens began to fight back. The national civil rights group, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (known as SNCC or “snick”), started organizing in the area in 1963, but faced considerable resistance, particularly from Martin-Luther-Kingsegregationist Sheriff Jim Clark who utilized local posses to intimidate, arrest and flat-out beat up those engaged in voter drives. In January of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. – the young pastor who was becoming the nation’s most influential moral voice for non-violent struggle against racism — along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a group of ministers leading non-violent boycotts, marches and sit-ins to protest segregation across the South) arrived in Selma to assist their growing movement.

In the preceding two years, Dr. King had given his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C., just months before four innocent little girls were murdered in a Birmingham, Alabama church bombed in an act of white supremacist terrorism. Only a few months before arriving in Selma, King had won the Nobel Peace Prize and then been named Man of the Year by Time Magazine, which declared him “the American Gandhi.”

As soon as Dr. King arrived in Selma, tension was mounting from every angle. On the ground, demonstrators faced vicious treatment, and knew lives were on the line. In the White House, President Johnson was closely watching what he feared could quickly become a tinderbox. And for King, the expectations were enormous because this had all the makings of a defining moment – one in which all the political manoeuvring, negotiating and non-violent protesting he had been advocating for years might truly have a shot at accomplishing something profound, if only the people could be kept safe from harm.

Inspired by the history, British producer Christian Colson (Slumdog Millionaire), commissioned a screenplay from Paul Webb and joined forces with Pathé to fund the development and production. Colson teamed up with Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment and producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Twelve Years a Slave) to further develop the script and to find the right director – a process that took almost eight years.

“We’d been interested for a long time in Dr. King’s legacy and the legacy of civil rights not just as the work of one man but as a collective movement — and we lobbied very intensely to become involved back in 2007,” recalls Kleiner. “The fact that these events had never been dramatized in cinema was humbling … but also exciting. We always believed in this story as not just history but a living history that continues to have present-day meaning.”

It was the convergence of three people who finally turned the oft talked-about project into reality: Ava DuVernay, an up-and-coming director who won the Best Director Award at Sundance with her micro-budget film Middle of Nowhere; actor David Oyelowo, who felt a call to play Dr. King and had tracked the project for years; and Oprah Winfrey, whose passionate support brought things to fruition.

“There were any number of approaches you could take to this material,” says Dede Gardner, “but what set this group apart was that they really wanted to encompass the totality of the civil rightsoprah_oyelowo_duvernay_selma_premiere_2014 movement, with Dr. King at the helm but not at all alone. He was supported by and sharing these experiences with a group of people – and it was important to show there were also fractures in this group. When the stakes are life and death, as they were in Selma, people are willing to go down fighting for what they believe is the right approach. Movements are born of these important debates. You need that conversation and analysis to make something happen. So this group brought a real focus on that, and also on the fact that the movement involved women and was not just the domain of men. There was also a drive to look at King as a genuine human being with doubts and anguish and dread as well as conviction, faith and command.”

When Oyelowo worked with DuVernay on Middle of Nowhere he intuitively felt DuVernay was the director who could give the material the fresh insight for which he’d always hoped. “I really mean it when I say this woman is a genius,” he says. “Her ability with story, just the way she is able to get under the skin of who we are as human beings, is so powerful. And the fact that her family is from Lowndes County, Alabama, literally from the country between Selma and Montgomery, means this history is in her DNA. You can feel that.”

For Oyelowo, the fact that DuVernay is a woman was another reason to champion her. “Even within the civil rights movement women were marginalized. They were just as talented, just as fervent about the injustices of the day, they sacrificed just as much if not more, but they haven’t been celebrated as heroes. So for me, for a black woman to be at the helm of this story felt absolutely right.”

Around the time that Oyelowo encountered DuVernay, he also got to know Winfrey while the two were starring together in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and he told her of his dream of playing Dr. King. “I had recorded myself doing the ‘Mountaintop’ speech, and I showed it to her just to see what she Selma_Film_Oyelowothought, and from that moment on she was obsessed,” he remembers. “She said ‘we need to figure this out.’ Then one day I called her and said let’s turn this energy into something real — do you want to join us on this? She said I’ll do whatever I need to do. And that was rocket fuel. From that moment on, things geared up.”

Winfrey ultimately could not resist the opportunity to help DuVernay and Oyelowo tell this story, especially now. “The reason I said yes to this movie is because I think you cannot know where you’re going as a people unless you know where you’ve been,” Winfrey says. “That adage that says we stand on the shoulders of some mighty folk is something I’ve lived my whole life. I’ve carried the voices of Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, and also the many thousands who marched and prayed and believed and suffered, hoping that there would be a better day – those who never imagined we could have the life that we now do have, with the ability for many to rise to your greatest self.”

She goes on: “The thing that’s really most exciting to me is that Selma is not just about Martin Luther King, but very much about all the people who made his three months in Selma possible. It’s a people’s story. King was able to do what he did because he had these people behind him. There was no one else like him obviously, and he was an amazingly charismatic, spiritually driven, motivated leader, but he still couldn’t have achieved these things without the people who stood beside him.”

The producing team was ecstatic to have Winfrey join the team. “It’s a treat to work with her,” says Gardner. “She can seem otherworldly from afar, but when you meet her, she’s a consummate human being, a supportive person, a realistic person and a genuine partner. She was with us the whole way reviewing casting tapes, watching dailies, talking about cuts and weighed in on every aspect of the production. It’s obviously a story that she’s personally very passionate about and you can feel that. And then to have her grace the film with her performance as Annie Lee Cooper was the icing on the cake.”

After spending time with DuVernay, Winfrey came away ready to have her back through the challenges of the production. “I’ve never seen anyone with the kind of intense, passionate, wilful force, and clear direction Ava has. On set, she creates a calm space where you can feel everybody working at their highest level while creating that sense of synergy with each other. The whole project took on her energy.”

That energy, born of a commitment to a higher legacy, felt like something unusual in dramatic film-making to many of the cast and crew. Summarizes Oyelowo: “With this film I can genuinely say that there was an overriding feeling of service. All of us, cast and crew were there asking each day: how can we serve this incredible community who put their lives on the line for the privileges we now enjoy?”

Ava’s Approach

Though she would be making her first big-budget feature film Ava DuVernay approached Selma with the ambition and vision of a director who felt a magnetic pull to tell this story deep down in her bones.

For DuVernay, the events of 1965 literally hit home because her family hails from Alabama, and she spent summers there as a young girl while growing up in Compton. “My father is from a small town called Hayneville in between Selma and Montgomery,” the director explains. “That’s part of why this story captured me. Previously, I’d been primarily interested in contemporary images of people of color, but when this story set in the past came into my life, it really took over my imagination in a very unexpected way. And I’m happy it did. It honours the people of Selma, but it also represents the struggle of people everywhere to vote.”

Selma underlined for DuVernay how the mere ability to vote can change and uplift communities. “The process that we call justice in this country is directly connected to the right to vote,” she observes. “We often take for granted what voting enables us to do – but one of those things is to sit on a jury. So if you are black in 1960s Alabama and intimidated to the point that you can’t even register to vote, that means that you can never sit on a jury to gain justice for yourself or for others like you. The degree to which the right to vote affects the everyday life of people was something I’d never fully processed until I got into the research for Selma.”

Intensive research was a necessity, yet DuVernay was searching for more than facts. She wanted to dig into the human centre of the story. Her approach was distinctive: going for a restrained realism that allows the audience to really see the hidden relationships and emotions on the underside of the events.

The film would dig deep into the hearts of, and the community forged by, all the men and women involved. Structured around FBI surveillance reports – the FBI followed Dr. King’s every move, resulting in a 17,000 page file that traced both the banal and decisive moments of his life — the final screenplay tracked events from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing through the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965. It also took a kaleidoscopic view, moving through every layer of society, from the Presidency to Selma housekeepers, recognizing all as connected.

This breadth left the final screenplay open to a multiplicity of interpretations, which excited the filmmakers. “You could read Selma as a story about how governments can sometimes be pushed to act in moral ways. Or it could be said it’s a story about protest as a fact of life that is tough and unglamorous,” says Kleiner. “It might be an ode to the brilliant strategies and tactics of this group of civil rights leaders. Or it could be a story about the struggle to overcome the enduring doctrine of white supremacy. It’s complex and it doesn’t have one meaning – it’s a story that could feel relevant at any point in history.”

DuVernay says she tried to hew to the essence of the events as people who were there remember them. “My approach was to tell the truth as best we could, because the actual facts of what happened, the actual people who were there, are more fascinating than anything you could make up,” the director says. “There are no composite characters in this film. Everyone you see in this film really lived, really struggled, really did these things. They are so compelling that there was no reason to make anything up. I leaned into the idea that my role was literally just to be a teller of their tale. I felt I was a translator just trying to get into the inner being of these men and women.”

At the same time, she sought a visceral immediacy to connect with today’s audiences. “Sometimes you can get dragged down by a historical drama, but this story is also contemporary. It’s of now. It’s really about something universal that applies to people of different genders, races and religions. We’ve all been made to feel barriers at some time – and this is a film about people triumphing over barriers.”

Having multiple civil rights leaders from that time – including Congressman John Lewis and Ambassador Andrew Young — participate was a source of inspiration. “Just to stand next to people who were so heroic was moving,” she recalls. “When you see John Lewis walk in and ask for a JohnLewisCoke, you think, ‘wow, he is just a regular man who did this extraordinary thing.’ And that was very important, because the more you realize these heroes were just like us the more you see how amazing what they did was. If you hold them at a historical distance, you can’t really feel that. But when you bring them closer, as we try to do in the film, that is when you see the greatness of what they accomplished.”

On set, DuVernay created a familial atmosphere in which to explore the characters. She says the ambience is important. “I believe we should not only try to create something beautiful on film but also have a beautiful experience while we make it,” she says. “I always said that when I made my own films that I would try to create a set I would have liked to be on, as a crew member or actor, where there are no barriers between people, no hierarchies. It seemed especially important on this film, because we are telling a story about community and unity. That was the goal and people really embraced it, and I think it shows in the work.”

DuVernay was also strengthened by Winfrey’s belief in her. “This woman is so consistently true to herself. She is generous, wise, funny, focused, smart, curious – and after all she’s done, she is still excited by new things. As an actress I found her to be very open and just ready to attack the material with vitality and vigour. And as a producer, she rolled up her sleeves, did really deep work on this project and it was extraordinary.”

The cast in turn was bolstered by DuVernay’s determination and clarity. “Ava is a phenomenon. She had an incredibly specific and strong vision that she stayed true to everyday — and yet she did all of this while remaining creatively open as a vessel and willing to hear ideas,” says Carmen Ejogo. “ThisAva DuVernay, David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo was such an epic undertaking, yet Ava always remained true to her independent spirit and her own aesthetic.”

Sums up producer Dede Gardner: “Ava’s mind and heart are such that she can be indie-minded when the circumstances call for it and she can be global-minded if that’s what the task requires. She’s an artist who ebbs and flows and bends and expands – and that elasticity was evident from the beginning. She had such personal stakes in telling this story – she felt it as an imperative and when the stakes are that high, it can create something universally big.”

A Human King
The Martin Luther King, Jr. seen in Selma is a complex man approaching not only the greatest, and potentially most dangerous, political battle of his life but also a personal crossroads. He’s made mistakes, he’s weary of battle, he’s watched his family suffer for too long – and all of this weighs on him as he tries to hold fast to his principles in the midst of the frightening violence and repression rising in Alabama.

Dr. King carries the kind of legend that has daunted many an actor, but David Oyelowo had felt an affinity towards him for years that drove him to seek this part. He might not at first seem an obvious choice. Oyelowo was born in Oxford, England and raised in England and Nigeria before moving to the U.S. in 2007. But he says the minute he read Paul Webb’s screenplay in that same year, he knew he would do anything he could to play Dr. King. “This role has been a seven year journey for me,” he notes. “But because of having all that time I have also had the chance to truly steep myself in getting to know all that I can about Dr. King, the movement and American history as a result.”

The more Oyelowo learned about Dr. King, the more he was determined to play him. He felt being British only gave him the distance necessary to see past the idealistic dreamer children know from history lessons, and go much deeper into his philosophy, faith and struggles. “I hadn’t grown up with Martin Luther King as a deified figure, so I felt a freedom to come at him more as just a man, more as a fully realized character,” he says. “Still, my admiration for him only grew enormously the more I learned.”

Oyelowo underwent a physical transformation for the role, packing on pounds and razoring his hair to match King’s familiar silhouette. But more so, he immersed himself in King’s expressiveness and in the art of charismatic speech-making at which Dr. King was one of the world’s acknowledged masters.

“I felt I could not do these speeches out of my own energy or whatever talent I have as an actor. I had to do as King had done and really ride the wave of a certain energy,” he describes. “I had to fully go there.”

At the same time, Oyelowo knew he had to find his own voice and not merely echo King’s instantly recognizable timbre. “It was a long process, but one of the things you can’t afford to do when you are playing a character like this is to fall into imitation or caricature. At the end of the day what people gravitate towards on the screen is a human being, not a statue. So I felt my job was to the find the blood and guts of this man – the heroism but also the weaknesses, the foibles. I wanted to find his voice and his physicality, but if people get the spirit of King from watching the film, then I’ve done my job.”

His research brought him into contact with a wide array of civil rights heroes, who helped shed light on the Dr. King most people have never seen. “One of the greatest privileges for me was spending time with Ambassador Andrew Young, who was very close with Dr. King. And the thing that surprised me is how much he talked about Dr. King’s sense of humour, what a prankster he was, how much he loved to laugh – and also how much these men did not feel they had the answers. He talked about the fact that they were just preachers, but they found themselves fighting these injustices that were there before them. They really weren’t these portentous people we might imagine. They were more muddling through, as young men do. But the important thing is that they did not shy away from the task at hand.”

He may have been young and riven by doubts, but the pressure on King was immense. He knew he was under 24/7 FBI surveillance and facing constant threats against himself and those he loved. As seen in the film, the FBI even famously sent him a cassette of sexual noises accompanied by a threatening letter that read in part, “the American public . . . will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast,” in the hopes of damaging him psychologically. He was shaken many times, but he was never deterred.

Oyelowo constantly kept in mind that King was just 36 in 1965, through all these events. “He always had a gravitas about him, even at the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the age of 26,” the actor points out. “But it’s hard to get your head around the fact that he died at 39, and in all those images you see of him, he was in his 20s and 30s — yet he was carrying this incredible weight on his shoulders.”

DuVernay was moved by Oyelowo’s commitment to accessing Dr. King. “He has channelled something so true,” she says. “David works with his whole heart. He has a deep reservoir of emotion and he can go anywhere, do anything. He has his own ideas but he also knows how to trust. He is also very tuned into politics and history, and he wanted to share that in a way that everyone can feel like this is their story – so we shared that in common. As a director, you couldn’t ask for more.”

She adds: “When I first saw him step into the pulpit, it was all I could do to just hold it together. I knew how much it meant to him and how much it could mean to those who see the film.”

Later, when Congressman John Lewis visited the set, he too was deeply moved. The moment he saw Oyelowo in costume, he commented out loud: “Dr. King, it’s been a long time.”

The authenticity of Oyelowo’s performance took all the filmmakers aback. “The more you see King as a human being, the more it amplifies the enormity of what he did,” says Jeremy Kleiner. “It’s an incredible performance. And this role was deeply personal for David – he’s a person of faith and he felt so strongly connected to the character. There was a kind of a serenity to David that was humble, yet at the same time full of conviction and confidence.”

Kleiner recalls one particular moment when Oyelowo’s commitment and research came to fore with Selma-34-Tom-Wilkinson-and-David-Oyelowosubtle power. “There’s a wonderful moment when Dr. King first arrives at the White House to meet with the President, and you have these few seconds before they get down to business, just making small talk.

There’s no footage that we know of that shows how Dr. King behaved in what must have been a very awkward moment but David’s performance is so brilliant, because you can feel that weight on his shoulders, you can feel how he almost can’t contain himself and yet how he’s also trying to be a pleasant person to have tea with. In those 12 seconds, David brings a deep understanding of King’s psychology.”

The idea that Dr. King’s journey is part of a larger quest stretching back into history impressed itself upon Oyelowo, who also had a role in Spielberg’s Lincoln, reminding him of how long the battle to vote had been waged. “There’s a scene in Lincoln where I say the exact same thing to Abraham Lincoln as I say to LBJ in Selma. In January 1865, my character is asking if we will be able to vote and exactly 100 years later, I am still asking that same thing,” he points out.

At the same time, he couldn’t help but see how timely the film was when many victories are apparent but voting rights and racial discrimination are very much still in the headlines. “The events in Selma give you the groundwork for the America we now live in,” he observes. “Without King there would be no Obama. Without King there may have been no voting rights at that time. Without the movements of the 60s, almost certainly we wouldn’t have many freedoms we now enjoy. But I think you also get a sense of how high the cost was, and how tragic it would be if what was achieved is treated trivially or lost.”

Most of all, Oyelowo thinks it is the very idea of self-sacrifice that must endure. “For me, what was so incredible about this group of people is the fact that they were not superheroes, but that did not prevent them from doing heroic things. Their power was that they were operating out of love in the face of hate. Right now, we live in a world where there’s so much inhumanity, so to have a film that reminds us of the beauty of our humanity, the power of peaceful protest and that we do have a voice, I think is needed.”

Surrounding Dr. King in Selma are a group of equally vibrant civil rights leader — who DuVernay dubs “The Kingsmen” – brought to life in charismatic performances.

They include civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who represented Rosa Parks fresh out of law school, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.; non-violent activist and de-segregationist James Bevel who was at Dr. King’s side through many of his most important actions and when he was assassinated in Memphis, portrayed by influential rapper and actor Common; Andrew Young, the young minister who would go on to a distinguished career in politics, a role taken by André Holland; the Reverend Hosea Williams, a minister and a scientist who became a leader of the SCLC, heading key demonstrations, played by Wendell Pierce.

The group also includes Bayard Rustin, a committed pacifist and civil rights activist since the 40s who was an influence on many young activists, performed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; James Forman, who as a leader of SNCC pushed for more aggressive protest techniques, sometimes butting heads with Dr. King, played by Trai Byers; Reverend James Orange, who was arrested during a 1965 voter drive in Alabama and became a top aide to Dr. King, portrayed by Omar J. Dorsey; Reverend Frederick Reese, head of the Selma Teachers Association who first invited Dr. King and the SCLC to Selma, played by E. Roger Mitchell; John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the SNCC in 1965 and now a long-standing Congressman from Georgia, who is brought to life by Canadian actor Stephan James; and Dr. King’s close friend and fellow activist Reverend Ralph Abernathy portrayed by Colman Domingo.

Political Manoeuvres
Lyndon Banes Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, led the nation during some of its most dizzying years of social turmoil and change. He was initially the “accidental” President, thrust into the role after the Kennedy assassination, then won a landslide victory in the 1964 election. Ultimately, he would preside over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and push for sweeping reforms to end poverty and inequality – but he was also associated with the unending war in Vietnam and became a target of counter-culture protesters looking for change to the status quo.

Early on in his presidency, Johnson began a little-known, complicated relationship with Dr. King – one that was at once adversarial and respectful. Without their collaboration, and all the savvy negotiating and tug-of-war it involved, it is unlikely the Voting Rights Act would have passed so quickly or even at all.

Finding an actor to play the pivotal role of Johnson was no easy task. Perhaps one the most colourful characters to ever be U.S. President, the tall, hulking Texan was a one-of-a kind, as famed for his coarse, unpolished way of speaking as for his mastery of political back-and-forth. But Oscar® nominated British actor Tom Wilkinson was intrigued because he says, “challenge is something I enjoy very much.”

Wilkinson evolved his own restrained reading of Johnson’s personality. “I thought it was very wrong to do an impersonation of LBJ,” he says. “Impersonations are so distracting, so when Ava told me that she wasn’t interested in an impersonation, that drew me. I wanted to show just enough of LBJ so you believe in him as a man.” He did watch footage of Johnson but notes, “In interviews and when the camera is rolling, he’s on his best behaviour, so you don’t always see that tougher side we now know he had.”

Coming from England, Wilkinson brought an outsider’s POV on what it means to be President. “I was able to come at it from a certain distance since the U.S. President doesn’t loom as large in my consciousness,” he explains. “LBJ was making decisions about things of great importance but he was also, after all, just a human being. Presidents don’t become these magnificent super-beings when they are elected. They are simply men doing the best they can under the most trying circumstances imaginable.”

Much as playing Johnson was a draw, Wilkinson says it was Selma’s story of how ordinary people can spark transformative change that deeply moved him. “This is a story about the core not only of democracy but of human rights. Around the world, voting rights and human rights remain huge issues and I think the more people are reminded of it, the more it renews itself in people’s conversations.”

Selma also brings to light the man who tenaciously pushed LBJ to collaborate with Dr. King: Lee C. White. Known for his unimposing style, but also his championing of integration, White served as a consultant on civil rights for both Kennedy and Johnson – and was instrumental in driving Johnson to address Congress directly after the events of “Bloody Sunday.” Giovanni Ribisi says he took the behind-the-scenes role of White because he was moved by the people in the story – and those telling it today. “I’m an admirer of so many people involved in this project and it really came down to that,” he says.

White, Ribisi notes, was battling for a President’s attention while he was buried under an avalanche of national crises. “Lee was working for somebody in LBJ who had inherited a whole lot of problems. There were so many things going on but he managed to bring civil rights to the forefront,” he says.

Ribisi was especially exhilarated by Wilkinson’s performance. “There have been portrayals of LBJ where he is almost a comedic character, because he could be so eccentric. But Tom had a very specific and natural take on him. I think he really understood something about Johnson – that he was very conscientious about control and about his reputation. Ultimately, Johnson saw that the situation in Selma was only going to escalate tension across the U.S. without action – and the opportunity was there to act.”

One of the stoniest obstacles protesters faced was Alabama’s Governor, George Wallace, a very different kind of Southern politician from Johnson. Though he would later say he regretted it, Wallace at that time was a staunch, outspoken segregationist whose bigoted talk provoked tensions across the nation. In 1962, he ran on a pro-segregation platform and when he was elected overwhelmingly, gave an inaugural speech in which he announced: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Despite his pandering to crass prejudice, Wallace was cast in the classic populist mould, and seen by many voters as a champion of the working class and an embodiment of Southern pride. He would go on to a long career in Alabama politics, serving as Governor four times and also running four times for President. (During the 1972 primaries, he was shot five times by a would-be assassin, leaving him paralysed.)

Taking the role of Wallace in Selma is Academy Award® nominee Tim Roth. Roth remembers thinking of Wallace as a monster growing up, but was not afraid of the role’s darkness. “I remember Selma_TimRoth_Governorseeing him on TV and being amazed by what was coming out of his mouth,” he recalls. “I had only ever thought of him as an indescribably bad guy so I thought it would be interesting to explore who he was further.”

He dove in completely, though he was acutely aware of how painful the words he was speaking could be to others. “I remember the first time I saw David Oyelowo, I was making an extremely racist speech and he was there watching in costume as Dr. King and it was just quite extraordinary,” Roth recalls.

But Roth says the importance of the story kept him focused on embodying Wallace as accurately as possible, in both his allure and his divisive politicking. “This movie is full of fascinating historical moments I had no idea took place,” he comments. “Ava has done her work so well that I think this film will stun people as it engages them. It’s an inspirational portrait of how you raise the consciousness of the world.”

Selma is in UK cinemas from the 6th February 2015