Gold Standard: AFI Fest: ‘Selma’ upends best picture Oscar race

Producer Oprah Winfrey, star David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay celebrate their film, "Selma," at the AFI Fest in Hollywood on Nov. 11.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images )
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Those standing in line outside Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday night for the 9 p.m. screening of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” heard a loud roar go up from inside the historic building shortly after 8.

It was the sound of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” upending this year’s best picture Oscar race.

The historical drama about the 1965 Martin Luther King Jr.-led voting-rights marches in Alabama earned a rousing standing ovation from the packed theater, and the cheering continued as actress Alfre Woodard brought DuVernay, actors David Oyelowo and Common, and producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner on stage for a post-screening Q&A.

Winfrey, who also has a small role in the film, playing civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, was a latecomer to the project, which had languished unmade for several years, waiting, as Gardner put it, “for the right director.” Oyelowo, who delivers a passionate, empathetic turn as King, suggested DuVernay for the job, having just worked with her on her indie drama “Middle of Nowhere.”


“I’m more of a black, indie, hipster romance kind of girl,” DuVernay said, adding that historical dramas have never been her favorite genre. “This movie began and ended for me with David Oyelowo.”

“Selma” isn’t a traditional biopic, instead focusing entirely on the decisions King and Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders and others made in the three-month window that led to the march to Montgomery and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.

“I feel like there should be a dozen movies about Dr. King,” Gardner told The Times. “But why not start with the one that feels vitally representative of what he stood for?”

With the best picture field stagnant since the early fall film festivals, “Selma” arrives at a propitious moment. “Interstellar” failed to part the heavens for many viewers, including academy members. Angelina Jolie’s historical drama “Unbroken” is just starting to screen, though it won’t be seen by most critics until later this month.

That leaves the door open for a sincere, well-crafted film like “Selma.” King is long overdue for a cinematic close-up, having never been the focus of a major feature film. And the movie’s civil rights subject matter is timely, both in relation to the events in Ferguson, Mo., and last year’s Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act that King tirelessly worked for.

One other fortuitous (and happier) bit of timing: Harry Belafonte, just celebrated for his activism by the motion picture academy at the Governors Awards, is seen in “Selma” in archival footage during the march to Birmingham. Day-O indeed. Don’t think any of the hundreds of academy members there at the black-tie dinner that night won’t smile at the connection.


Winfrey was all smiles after the Q&A, signing autographs for fans outside the Egyptian Theatre before heading over to the Sunset Tower Hotel, where the party continued well into the night. DuVernay, who was going on 40-plus hours without sleep, told The Times: “I’m just trying hard to enjoy the ride and stay in the present moment.”

We’re guessing she’ll sleep soundly tonight.

Twitter: @GlennWhipp