With movies, like love, it's all about timing. When the director Ava DuVernay was shooting Selma – the new drama about Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo, also on screens in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year), who led a 1965 march from that city to Montgomery, Ala., spurring passage of the U.S. Voting Rights Act – the present-day dismantling of that act by the U.S. congress and courts was at the top of her mind.
Then a month after shooting wrapped, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo., "and a whole community, just like Selma, rallied to amplify their voice about this injustice," DuVernay said in a joint interview with Oyelowo in Toronto on Dec. 10 (coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize). Furthermore, a week before we spoke, a grand jury in New York had failed to indict the police officers who strangled Eric Garner, an event captured on camera and seen all over the world. LeBron James had just shown up for an NBA game wearing a warmup suit emblazoned with Garner's last words, "I Can't Breathe."
"So our ideas of how our film fits into its cultural moment are changing as the moment is changing," DuVernay continues. "It's a painful moment. But I do believe there's a reason that a film about Dr. King – the first one in the 50 years since the march took place – is in the world now. There have been biopics on Jimmy Hoffa, on the lady who made Tupperware, on everyone but Dr. King. I don't know why it's taken so long, but I know the time is now."
DuVernay doesn't say it, but the timing also may be right for something more pedestrian: the Oscars. In a year where the front-runner, Boyhood, came out last August, Selma feels significant and fresh. And because Oyelowo delivers both stirring speeches and tantalizing insights into the private King (Coretta's ticked that Martin doesn't know where the garbage bags are), it's the kind of film Academy members feel good about themselves for backing. The American Film Institute named it movie of the year, it's up for five Independent Spirit awards, and on Sunday it will contend for four Golden Globes: best picture, director, actor and original song – Glory, by Common, who acts in the film, and name-checks Ferguson in the lyrics. Further proof that Selma is a contender: It has a cadre of detractors who feel its depiction of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson is unfairly damning.
In our interview, DuVernay and Oyelowo (pronounced oh-YELL-oh-oh) cracked up at her Tupperware line; they crack each other up a lot. She's 42, a former film publicist with a head full of braids, a husky voice and a confident, relaxed manner. He's 38, a Brit by way of Nigeria, a star at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who speaks with precise elocution in a voice as smooth as cognac. (At a Q&A following a Toronto screening of Selma, he delighted in how startled the audience was to hear his real accent.) The two worked together on her 2012 feature Middle of Nowhere and plan to do more; she joshingly refers to him as her muse.
Both are emblems of their own cultural moment: DuVernay is hailed as the first black woman to win the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival (for Middle of Nowhere), and the first to earn a best director nomination for a Golden Globe (for Selma). Oyelowo was the first black actor to play an English monarch at the RSC, in 2001's King Henry VI. They share a bittersweet knowledge that their accomplishments are forever mentioned in relation to their race.
"Certainly David was not the first qualified black actor to play that part; certainly I did not make the only film that was worthy of that award," DuVernay says. "The success is lovely, but you can't take the loveliness out of context. You have to both celebrate it and critique it – why is this the case? Why now, why me? Because there are a lot of years that are not lovely, that led up to that moment."
"It's great to be the one being recognized for breaking new ground," Oyelowo adds. "But the pressure to get it right is extreme." While in rehearsal for Henry VI, Oyelowo read this quote from an Oxford don: "'We open ourselves to ridicule if we allow black people to play Shakespearean kings.' If I fail, the door starts to close again. So I can't fail."
For both, the road to making Selma was bumpy. Oyelowo first read the script in 2007, though that iteration was more about Johnson than King – "the more typical movie arc of a white character dragging a black man through to the Promised Land," he says. "As a man of faith" – he's a born-again Christian – "my inroad to Dr. King was his conflation of faith, social service, sacrificial love, understanding, tenacity and courage. His faith led him to the notion of love as a weapon against hatred, which ballooned into being politically savvy. I know what it feels like to have a spiritual conviction, one that dictates the kind of husband and father you are, the kind of choices you make. He did it on a bigger scale than I ever will, but I felt a deep spiritual connection with him, and God told me I would play this role."
I ask Oyelowo to repeat that last bit. "On the 24th of July I wrote it in my prayer diary," he says. "God told me, that's the only reason I dared to think it could happen." It took a few years, but in 2010 the director Lee Daniels cast Oyelowo as King. In the time it took to assemble financing, they made two other films together, The Paperboy and The Butler. Eventually Daniels exited the project and DuVernay came on. Backed by two power producers, Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey, she shot the film in 32 days, for $20-million (U.S.), a bargain for a period piece.
Regardless of who gets an Oscar nod on Jan. 15, DuVernay and Oyelowo are capitalizing on the campaign's exposure to, as she puts it, "engage the world politically through our art." The duo teamed up with Ryan Coogler, who directed Fruitvale Station, to discourage people from shopping on Black Friday, and instead "take the day to reflect on all the unrest that's going on," she says.
Oyelowo makes a passionate case for police reform, for "an independent body to step in when police have committed a crime." And they're proud that their film depicts a model for change, showing how "disparate groups, with different opinions, came together," he says.
"Black people are not a monolith, white people are not a monolith," DuVernay says. "I'm allergic to the idea that there has to be one answer, one method. But I do think it's a moment where everyone has to step up. Silence is apathy. If you care at all, you have to speak up."