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'Selma' director and actor on paying tribute to Martin Luther King

January 29th, 2015
10:12 AM ET

By Madalena Araujo, CNN

One has to wonder how “Selma," the gripping new historical drama that chronicles Martin Luther King’s struggle to grant black Americans the right to vote, ended up with a mostly British cast.

“You know, things just happen,” the film’s director Ava DuVernay said with a laugh, patting star David Oyelowo on the shoulder in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.

“As an actor you’re just seeking a part that matches you, and as a director you’re seeking an actor that fits that part. These actors are exquisite, and David was the only choice for Dr. King,” DuVernay added.

Growing up in England, Oyelowo explained how he came to absorb the iconic role of the civil rights leader.

“I knew who he was obviously, I knew his significance. But as you say, being British, he wasn’t part of my cultural upbringing. And I think actually that was a benefit to me,” Oyelowo told Amanpour.

“Also a benefit to me was the fact that it took a long time between me reading it for the first time, knowing that in my spirit that I was going to do this before I die, and it taking seven years before it actually came to fruition,” the actor added.

Strict copyright issues imposed by the King estate meant that DuVernay had to work around some of the activist’s most powerful orations, replacing some of the actual words by others that stayed true to the meaning of his speeches.

“We’re fortunate that the time that we chronicle in “Selma”, from January 1965 to March 1965 is not when Dr. King made his “I Have a Dream” speech, so in terms of the chronology of the picture, we were safe in not having to deal with that speech,” DuVernay said.

“But there were other speeches that he made publicly during that time that we’re not allowed to use because the rights to those speeches have been granted by his estate to another filmmaker, not us.”

This other filmmaker “would be Steven Spielgerg,” Amanpour noted, which saw DuVernay bowing and conceding “that would be Mr. Spielberg – yes, we bow!”

“Up and coming director,” Oyelowo joked.

“Yes, a young chap, who’s doing a few good things,” DuVernay added.

The film centers around King’s epic marches from Selma, Alabama, to state capital Montgomery, as part of the struggle to get the vote for African-Americans.

Oyelowo pointed out that “the Voting Rights Act is currently in the presence of being dismantled due to the notion that the country has changed enough that we no longer need the voting process policed by the federal government.”

“But I think anyone who sees the very real parallels between Selma and Ferguson, yes, there have been incredible strides by way of improvement, but there are still huge issues that we're facing and those parallels are indicative of that fact,” he added.

The Voting Rights Act struggle is “is really much a part of my family legacy,” DuVernay said.

“My father's from Lowndes County, Alabama, that's the county that sits right between Selma and Montgomery. So in order for the protests to complete their march from Selma to Montgomery, which is a five- day march, they had to walk through Lowndes County, Alabama, and at one point, my father at 11 years old watched the protesters pass.”

King is such a central figure in DuVernay’s family, that in her “grandmother's home there's a picture of Jesus and Dr. King at equal heights on the wall.”

“And so as a filmmaker to - be presented with the opportunity to make the first film with Dr. King at the center ever released in theaters by a major studio, was a huge challenge. I felt a huge responsibility and it was an honor,” she added.

While widely acclaimed, the film only got nominated for Best Picture, missing out on all the other categories.

“I'm not very well known in the directors' branch. I'm very new to it. So I know it's a lot about interpersonal relationships in addition to the film. So I did not think that I had much of a chance,” DuVernay said.

“David not being included, because I know for a fact it's one of the best performances of the year, I know what it took to get the performance to where it was and what he gave. It hurt my feelings, I'll admit to you,” she added.

DuVernay also told Amanpour she’s “reteaming [with Oyelowo] to explore another part of American history,” in a new a film about Hurricane Katrina.

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