Martin Luther King, Jr. is perhaps the most famous orator of the 20th century. But Selma, the first major motion picture with the civil rights leader at its center, could not make use of his iconic words.
The speeches delivered by Dr. King are property of his family’s estate, which licensed them in 2009 to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for a biopic that Steven Spielberg hopes to eventually produce. That left director Ava DuVernay and her star David Oyelowo, who plays King in the tightly-focused drama due out on Dec. 25, in the position of having to re-write the rousing words that helped win equal voting rights for all Americans in 1965.
“There’s never been a major motion picture with King at the center, at least in theaters, and a lot of it was because of the intellectual property,” DuVernay told Yahoo Movies. “So I just unanchored myself from the words and went not even line-by-line, but word for word, to try to really understand what he was trying to say and then just say it in a different way.”
DuVernay came on to the project in 2013 and gave the script a significant re-write from screenwriter Paul Webb’s original text, which focused more on the push-and-pull relationship between King and President Lyndon Johnson. Her version, while still giving insight into the relationship between the two men, takes a much closer look at the prejudice faced by black Americans in the south and the grassroots and media strategy that Dr. King and his fellow leaders employed during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
She had to work fast to rewrite the script, and so as she tweaked the speeches, she would relay them to Oyelowo for test runs.
"I would basically record them on my iPhone and I would send them to her," he told Yahoo Movies. "I’d look at it, having listened to many of King’s speeches and say, ‘I think he would say the word three times,’ because that’s what he tended to do, or I would say ‘I think it’s too long there’ or ‘I think it’s too short there.’ I would record it and she would listen to it. She would try and make sure the accent was on point."
Oyelowo specifically watched King’s walking and talking tics, including the way he moved his head and lingered on certain phrases during his speeches. The actor is British, so the accent work was particularly important.
"He had very specific rhythms when he’s giving speeches, they’re almost like symphonies. There’s a very clear structure when you’re listened to them time and again," Oyelowo explained. "For his accent, he’s from Atlanta, but his accent has a lot of Boston in it because he spent formative years there — this is work I did with a dialogue coach who helped me put this together. He was a preacher, but he didn’t want to be old school like his dad — he also liked big words, so that would punctuate his speeches."
In a sense, Oyelowo said, not having the license to use Dr. King’s speeches was a relief. “I can’t think of anything worse than having to do the ‘I have a dream’ speech in a movie,” he said, “because to be compared and contrasted with him, you’re out of the movie by then, you’re just looking at whether the actor in the film is right on.”
Ultimately, few in the audience know those great speeches made during the push for voting rights by heart, so the main objective was to make it feel like the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Just because you’re exposed to it so much, there’s also an instinctive side to it, you can just feel it," Oyelowo said. "And that’s what the audience is doing. You know when it’s off. And you know when it’s right, and that’s basically how we did it."
Watch the trailer for ‘Selma’ below: