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Ava DuVernay may have come on board to direct Selma late last year, but she was born to do the job.
As you can see in the exclusive first trailer — which you can watch above — the civil rights drama dives deep into the story of the march that saw Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo of The Butler) traveling from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., during the fight for equal voting rights in 1965. The historic protest passed through Lowndes County, where DuVernay’s father was born and grew up and where Ava and her siblings frequently visited.
"His family farm is right on the stretch of lonely backcountry roads that the marchers walked from Selma to Montgomery," DuVernay tells Yahoo Movies. "I didn’t have to start with learning about the place, because that’s where my dad is from and where we spent many summers and Father’s Days and Christmases. I could just go straight to the story."
Calling her father a “quiet and dignified man,” DuVernay said she worked to imbue the film with his energy and the strength of the people who fought the remarkable battle for basic human rights. In the trailer, King rallies his allies against the hostile police and ambivalent government officials — including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon Johnson — who have been empowered by an entrenched system of segregation and racism. Their peaceful march, however, is met with violence and hatred.
The script for Selma, one of the surprisingly few historically-accurate films with King at its center, had languished in development for years, having been eyed at different times by such filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, and Lee Daniels. DuVernay’s hiring, which came at the suggestion of Oyelowo, helped move the project toward reality. But it was the involvement of producer Oprah Winfrey — who adopted the film as a passion project — that helped get Selma over the finish line.
"She was active and engaged and constantly on the set," DuVernay said. "She moved the waters like Moses: She held up her staff, and they parted, and we were able to go through and make the movie. She was a producer, and that’s working on financing, physical production, casting, permits, insurances — it gets really boring and unsexy at some point. But I’m able to say I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey on an insurance bond call. She did it all."
That even included acting in the film, as civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, though that onscreen credit was an honor the global superstar was reticent to receive.
"That took a lot of convincing," DuVernay said. "She’d just come off The Butler, and she wasn’t seeking a part in Selma. So I had to ask her four times. She kept putting it off, until I was able to show her some background materials on the character I wanted her to play. She was the perfect person for the part. I had to wage a full campaign to get her to play it.”
Eventually, Winfrey acquiesced and agreed to play Cooper, a protester who became known for punching an aggressive police chief in the jaw. Oprah, DuVernay said, needed no help in throwing the punch. “Oh no — she was good!” the director said with a laugh.
DuVernay is feverishly working to finish the film, which opens on Dec. 25, and has spent much of postproduction keeping one eye on her movie, and one on eye on the recent events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., where the struggle on the ground eerily recalls the situation King faced decades ago.
"It really just proves that these issues are on a continuum," she said. "Until we really understand where they started and what’s happened, they’ll just continue to happen. I was grappling with the footage in the editing room: On one screen, I’m looking at my footage, and [then] I turn my head and I’m watching CNN and MSNBC on the other [screen], and I’m seeing the same thing. A whole small town that had to face an aggressive police force and had to grapple with, ‘Do we throw rocks? What do we do?’ We just went through Selma again, collectively."