When director Ava DuVernay was making her new film, "Selma," about the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama, she found herself in an odd position: re-creating the charged events in the very locations where they took place.
To add to the surrealness, most of DuVernay's family lives in that part of the state, and some relatives even carry memories of those tumultuous times.
"My father grew up in Alabama and remembers the marches going by his family's farm," DuVernay said recently, taking a break from editing the film. "And as we're shooting, he's standing there, near the steps of the Capitol — the one that [Gov.] George Wallace didn't let the marchers stand on — watching as his daughter has all these extras dressed up as troopers, watching as his daughter shuts down streets all around Alabama to tell this story."
It's a tale that could prove equally eye-opening for those who didn't live through it. Hollywood makes civil rights movies only sporadically these days, and when it does, those films tend to sidestep some of the movement's major figures to center on lesser-known characters (e.g., "The Butler"). But when Paramount Pictures opens "Selma" on Christmas Day ahead of a wider release in January timed to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, both the film and DuVernay will take a more direct route.
"Selma" centers on King himself, who improbably has never been the lead subject in a major feature film before. (He's played by British-born actor David Oyelowo.) It comes from DuVernay, an Angeleno indie filmmaker known not for big-budget biopics or historical epics but for gritty movies about the black community.
That "Selma" arrives on the heels of African American unrest in Ferguson, Mo., is an eerie — but, DuVernay and others involved in the movie say, hardly unexpected — coincidence. ("Selma" was financed independently with the help of the French company Pathé — Paramount came aboard later in the process and serves as its distributor — but the Hollywood pedigree is unmistakable. Oprah Winfrey is a producer, as are the principals of Plan B — the company of Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner that was behind last year's best picture winner "12 Years a Slave.")
Written by DuVernay and Paul Webb, "Selma" is a tightly focused story about King during the critical three months when he organized a trio of marches through the segregated South. The protests, which began in response to the killing of voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, led to a cascading series of events: the "Bloody Sunday" violence, the tactical restraint of "Turnaround Tuesday" and the eventual march to Montgomery that turned the tide of the civil rights movement and resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act.
DuVernay decided to concentrate on the in-the-trenches strategy followed by King and leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups rather than take a top-down government view. (An earlier Webb-written version of the story featured President Lyndon B. Johnson, here peripheral, as a far more central character). Both writers wanted to avoid a traditional biopic.
"I didn't want to approach Dr. King as a cradle-to-grave story; that's a big life," DuVernay said. "My guide was the truth and facts of what happened each day and how each great, difficult choice led to the next great, difficult choice."
Gardner realized that could be seen as a risky path — most movies about such outsized personalities seek a larger scale — but said she believed it served the material. "I feel like there should be a dozen movies about Dr. King," she said. "But why not start with the one that feels vitally representative of what he stood for?"
DuVernay ran a Hollywood media and marketing firm for the better part of a decade, working on releases such as Paramount's "Dreamgirls" as recently as 2006. Her weekends were filled with junkets and other obligations, but she found time to write scripts in free moments.
After several forays into documentaries, DuVernay — who grew up in Compton and lives in Los Angeles but whose parents and four siblings have all returned to her parents' native Alabama — made her first narrative feature, the family drama "I Will Follow," in 2010. She followed it in 2012 with the prison-themed relationship tale "Middle of Nowhere," for which she became the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival's director prize.
"Selma" had been kicking around for years with Oyelowo and Plan B — with directors Stephen Frears, Spike Lee and Lee Daniels in various stages of attachment along the way. When Daniels opted to make "The Butler" instead, Oyelowo pushed producers to consider DuVernay. The filmmaker, who in person has what might be called a good-natured bluster, had studied the civil rights movement at UCLA and is not timid about expressing her thoughts on race-related issues, in person or on social media.
DuVernay said she aimed to paint a nuanced portrait of King that goes far beyond the popular conception. "To most people, he's the ["I Have a Dream"] speech and the assassination. I wanted to show who he is," she said.
"I didn't want a sugarcoated story that made him a saint, and at the same time, I also didn't want to front-load it with antihero overcorrection. You see movies that do that, that go for this flaw or that flaw, and it's really the low hanging fruit." She used the word "badass" several times in connection with King.
"Selma" does not have the official blessing of the three King children. But Gardner and DuVernay believe their film carries the weight of authenticity — not least because many of the events of King's life seem to perpetually recur.
"It's been very strange editing this film in these last few months. You're cutting a bloody sequence where state troopers are lining up citizens and drawing guns on housewives, and you go home and watch Ferguson and see the same thing on television," DuVernay said. "Or you look at Hong Kong or Mexico. This movie is on a continuum of things that keep happening all around the world."