Selma (film)

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Selma poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Produced by
Written by
  • Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay (uncredited)[1]
Music by Jason Moran
Cinematography Bradford Young
Edited by Spencer Averick
Distributed by Paramount Pictures (United States)
Pathé (United Kingdom)[2]
Release dates
  • December 25, 2014 (2014-12-25)
Running time
127 minutes[3]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20 million[4]
Box office $40.9 million[4]

Selma is a 2014 American historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay.[5] It is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel,[6][7] Hosea Williams, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC. The film stars British actors David Oyelowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, and American rapper and actor Common as Bevel.

Pathé financed the film, with Plan B Entertainment, Cloud Eight Films and Harpo Productions co-producing the film. Paramount Pictures distributed Selma in the United States and Canada.

Selma premiered at the American Film Institute Festival on November 11, 2014, began a limited U.S. release on December 25, and expanded into wide theatrical release on January 9, 2015, just two months before the 50th anniversary of the march.

Selma had four Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor, and won for Best Original Song.[8] It is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song at the 87th Academy Awards.


In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King attend the ceremony in Oslo, Norway, where he accepts his Nobel Peace Prize. Four young girls are then shown walking down the inside steps of a church, talking. An explosion goes off, killing all four girls and injuring others. In Selma, Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper is shown filling out a form to become a registered voter. The white registrar asks her increasingly difficult questions about federal and state government. She answers correctly. He finally gives her one that nobody could answer, and her application is rejected. Dr. King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson concerning black citizens not being allowed to register to vote. King tells Johnson that white registrars are illegally denying registration forms from the black community, and points out the senseless acts of violence against them. King then asks for federal legislation which would allow black citizens to register to vote unencumbered, but Johnson responds that he has more important things on his mind.

King travels to Selma with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash. Reverend James Bevel comes to the car to greet the group as they arrive, and other SCLC civil rights activists appear. As they talk to Dr. King while he signs into a local hotel a young white man approaches and punches Dr. King in the mouth. President Johnson and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover talk about the incident. Hoover thinks King is becoming a problem, and suggests that they cause friction at Dr. King's home to weaken the marriage dynamic. Coretta shows reservations over her husband's upcoming actions in Selma, and concern for her family's well-being. Late that night King calls a friend, singer Mahalia Jackson, to help him reach out and hear the Lord's voice, and Jackson sings a gospel song to him. King speaks before a congregation of other civil rights activists and hopeful voters to rouse up their spirits. Their plan is to march to the voters registration office to nonviolently ask to register, despite knowing that the authorities will not allow them to do so. King and the other activists march through Selma before a crowd of anti-civil rights townspeople. After a tense confrontation in front of the courthouse between movement activists and Selma law enforcement, a shoving match and fight ensues as the police go into the crowd. Annie Lee Cooper fights back and knocks Sheriff Jim Clark to the ground. This leads to the arrest of Cooper, King, and other movement activists.

Governor George Wallace speaks out against the movement. Johnson hears about the incident in Selma and King's arrest, and is infuriated. Coretta meets with Malcolm X, who has come to Selma even though he disagrees with King's and SCLC's nonviolent movements, and he offers to be an alternative voice for the black community in order to show the white community what they will get if the nonviolent movement does not achieve its goals. When Coretta visits her husband in jail and tells him about her meeting with Malcolm X, King is displeased, since Malcolm X has derided him in the past. Wallace meets with Col. Al Lingo to discuss the overall situation, and they eventually decide to use force at an upcoming night march in Marion, Alabama. At the night event the streetlights are turned off, and Alabama State Troopers brutally assault the marchers on the streets. A small group of protesters run into a restaurant to hide, and pretend to be ordering a meal. State troopers rush in, and soon coldly shoot an unarmed young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, as Jackson tries to protect his mother, who herself is trying to protect her father who is being beaten. King and Bevel meet with Cager Lee, Jackson's grandfather, at the morgue where they look at Jimmie Lee Jackson's body through a window. King is then shown giving a speech where he states that the people will continue to fight for their freedom and their rights, and that everybody who is standing idly by and letting these killings occur is partially responsible for Jackson's death. The Kings receive threats at home from people that say they will harm their children. King comes under scrutiny from members of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), who think King is not doing enough to help the cause.

The Selma to Montgomery march is about to take place. King is in Atlanta and won't be attending the march, and talks by phone to Andrew Young about cancelling the march, but Young reasons with him and King agrees that the march should go forward. The marchers, including John Lewis of SNCC, Hosea Williams of SCLC, and local activist Amelia Boynton, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and approach a line of armed troopers. The troopers tell them to turn back. They do not do so, the troopers charge, and, using clubs, horses, tear gas and other weapons, attack the marchers. Lewis and Boynton are among those badly injured. This event is shown on national television, and is seen by Johnson and Wallace. The wounded are treated inside and on the street in front of the movement's headquarter church. With the first Selma to Montgomery march stopped, attorney Fred Gray asks federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson to let the march go forward. He refuses until a hearing is held. President Johnson, fed up with the situation, demands that both King and Wallace stop their actions. Johnson sends John Doar to meet with King to convince him to postpone the second march from Selma to Montgomery, but King declines.

A number of white citizens, including Viola Liuzzo and several clergymen, travel to Selma to join the next march. The marchers are shown crossing the bridge again, and, at the top of the bridge, they see the state troopers, who are lined up as before, turn aside to let them pass. King, after praying, leads the group away from the bridge. King once again comes under fire from SNCC activists who feel that they've just missed their best chance for success. That evening a white supporter, Rev. James Reeb, is beaten and murdered by two white men on the street outside a local restaurant. Eventually, King and other SCLC activists attend Judge Johnson's hearing, and, after testimony by Cager Lee and others, Johnson rules in favor of allowing the march. President Johnson is shown speaking before a joint session of Congress, laying out the reasons why Congress should quickly pass a bill to eliminate restrictions on voting for the black community. Johnson also praises the courage of the involved activists, and proclaims in his speech "We shall overcome".

The marchers gather for the final march to Montgomery. The scene is juxtaposed with footage of the actual 1965 march. When the 54-mile five-day march reaches Montgomery Dr. King speaks on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. As he continues his speech on-screen text about the film's real life counterparts is shown, including the fact that Viola Liuzzo will be shot and killed a few hours later while driving another marcher back to Selma. King concludes his speech by saying that freedom is coming closer, thanks to the grace of the Lord.




On June 18, 2008, Variety reported that screenwriter Paul Webb had written an original story about Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson for Celador's Christian Colson, which would be co-produced with Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment.[32] In 2009 Lee Daniels was reportedly in early talks to direct the film, with financing by Pathé, and with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B as co-producers, and the participation of Butt Eight Films.[33] In 2010 reports indicated The Weinstein Company would join Pathe and Plan B to finance the $22 million film,[34] but by the next month Daniels had signed on with Sony to re-write and direct The Butler.[35] In an interview in August 2010, Daniels said financing was there for the Selma project, but he had to choose between The Butler and Selma, and chose The Butler.[36]

In July 2013, it was announced that Ava DuVernay had signed on to direct the film for Pathe UK and Plan B, and that she was revising the script with the original screenwriter, Paul Webb. DuVernay estimated that she re-wrote 90 percent of Webb's original script.[37] Those revisions included rewriting King's speeches, because, in 2009, King's estate licensed them to DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. for an untitled project to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Subsequent negotiations between those companies and Selma's producers did not lead to an agreement. DuVurnay is credited with writing alternative speeches that evoke the historic ones without violating the copyright. She recalled spending hours listening to King's words while hiking the canyons of Los Angeles. While she did not think she would "get anywhere close to just the beauty and that nuance of his speech patterns", she did identify some of King's basic structure, such as a tendency to speak in triplets: saying one thing in three different ways.[38][39]

In early 2014, Oprah Winfrey came on board as a producer along with Brad Pitt,[40] and by February 25 Paramount Pictures was in final negotiations for the US and Canadian distribution rights.[41]

On April 4, 2014, it was announced that Bradford Young would be the director of photography of the film.[42]


In 2010, Daniels (who was the attached director at the time) confirmed that the lead role of Martin Luther King Jr. would be played by British actor David Oyelowo. King was one of four main roles all played by British actors (the others roles being those of King's wife, President Johnson, and Alabama Governor Wallace).[37] Actors who had confirmed in 2010 but who did not appear in the 2014 production include Robert De Niro, Hugh Jackman, Cedric the Entertainer, Lenny Kravitz, and Liam Neeson.[9][43][44][45][46]

On March 26, 2014, British actor Tom Wilkinson was added to the cast to play U.S President Lyndon B. Johnson.[10] On April 7, it was announced that British actor Carmen Ejogo would play Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King.[13] On April 15, actor and rapper Keith Stanfield had reportedly joined the cast to play civil rights protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed on a nighttime march and whose death led James Bevel to initiate the Selma to Montgomery marches.[21][47] On April 22, Lorraine Toussaint joined the cast to portray Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was very active in the Selma movement before SCLC arrived and was the first African-American woman in Alabama to run for Congress.[14] On April 25, it was announced that Ledisi had been added to the cast to play Mahalia Jackson, a singer and friend of King.[25] On May 7, Andre Holland joined the cast to play politician and civil rights activist Andrew Young.[22] On May 8, Tessa Thompson was cast to play the role of Diane Nash, a civil rights activist and founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.[23] On May 9, Deadline confirmed the role of Common as James Bevel, the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.[12] On May 16, Trai Byers was added to the cast to play James Forman, a civil rights leader active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.[26] And on June 20, Deadline cited the role of Colman Domingo as SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy.[18]

On May 28, Stephan James was confirmed portraying the role of SNCC activist John Lewis in the film.[27] On May 29, Wendell Pierce joined the film to play civil rights leader Hosea Williams.[24] On May 30, Cuba Gooding, Jr. was set to play civil rights attorney and activist Fred Gray.[16] On June 3, British actor Tim Roth signed on to play Alabama governor George Wallace.[11] On June 4, Niecy Nash joined the cast to play Richie Jean Jackson, wife of Dr. Sullivan Jackson played by Kent Faulcon, while John Lavelle joined to play Roy Reed, a reporter covering the march for The New York Times.[17][28] On June 10, it was announced that the film's producer, Oprah Winfrey, would also portray Annie Lee Cooper, a 54-year-old woman who tried to register to vote and was denied by Sheriff Clark – whom she then punched in the jaw and knocked down.[15] Jeremy Strong joined the cast to play James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston and murdered civil rights activist.[29] On June 12, it was reported that Giovanni Ribisi joined the cast to play Lee C. White, an adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on strategies regarding the Civil Rights Movement.[19] Alessandro Nivola also joined to play John Doar, a civil rights activist and attorney general for civil rights for the Department of Justice in the 1960s.[20] Dylan Baker was added to the cast to play FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover , who carried out extensive investigations of King and his associates, on July 17.[30]


Principal photography began May 20, 2014, around Atlanta, Georgia.[48][49] Filming took place around Marietta Square[50] and Rockdale County Courthouse in Conyers. The Conyers scene involved a portrayal of federal judge Frank Minis Johnson, who ruled that the third and final march could go forward.[51] In Newton County, Georgia, filming took place at Flat Road, Airport Road, Gregory Road, Conyers, Brown, Ivy and Emory Streets, exteriors on Lee Street, and an interior night shoot at the Townhouse Café on Washington St.[52]

In Alabama, scenes were shot in Selma, centering on the Bloody Sunday march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and at Montgomery, Alabama, where, in 1965, King led civil rights demonstrators down Dexter Avenue toward the Alabama State Capitol at the conclusion of the third march from Selma.[53]


Jason Moran composed the music for the film, marking his debut in the field.[54]

John Legend and Common, who plays James Bevel in the film, released the accompanying track "Glory" in December 2014, ahead of the film's theatrical release. "Glory", which has been described as a protest anthem, references the 2014 Ferguson protests and earned a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.[55][56]


Selma premiered in Grauman's Egyptian Theatre at AFI Fest on November 11, 2014, in Los Angeles[57] for which it received a standing ovation.[58] The film opened in limited release in the USA, including Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta,[59] on December 25, 2014, before its wide opening on January 9, 2015.[60] The film is scheduled to be screened in the Berlinale Special Galas section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival.[61]


Selma has received universal acclaim from film critics. Praise has gone particularly to the film's acting, cinematography, screenplay, and direction. On Rotten Tomatoes the film currently holds a rating of 99%, based on 150 reviews, with an average rating of 8.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Fueled by a gripping performance from David Oyelowo, Selma draws inspiration and dramatic power from the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. — but doesn't ignore how far we remain from the ideals his work embodied."[62] On Metacritic the film has a score of 89 out of 100, based on 43 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[63]

Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times praised the film, calling it "an important history lesson that never feels like a lecture. Once school is back in session, every junior high school class in America should take a field trip to see this movie."[64] Joe Morgenstern, writing for The Wall Street Journal, also lauded the film. "At its best, Ava DuVernay's biographical film honors Dr. King's legacy by dramatizing the racist brutality that spurred him and his colleagues to action."[65] A.O. Scott of The New York Times gave a glowing review, praising the acting, directing, writing, and cinematography. "Even if you think you know what’s coming, “Selma” hums with suspense and surprise. Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling."[66] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was also extremely positive towards the film. "DuVernay's look at Martin Luther King's 1965 voting-rights march against racial injustice stings with relevance to the here and now. Oyelowo's stirring, soulful performance as King deserves superlatives."[67]

David Denby, writing for The New Yorker, also praised the film. "This is cinema, more rhetorical, spectacular, and stirring than cable-TV drama."[68] Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post was also positive and gave the film four stars. "With Selma, director Ava DuVernay has created a stirring, often thrilling, uncannily timely drama that works on several levels at once...she presents [Martin Luther King, Jr.] as a dynamic figure of human-scale contradictions, flaws and supremely shrewd political skills."[69]

A critical perspective came from Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, who claimed that Selma is a political work that reflects the "conservative Black political worldview" of producer and star Oprah Winfrey.[70] In a similar vein regarding a discussion as to why the film didn't garner more Academy Award nominations, Adolph Reed, Jr., political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, opined that "now it’s the black (haute) bourgeoisie that suffers injustice on behalf of the black masses."[71]

Controversies regarding historical accuracy[edit]

Like JFK, Zero Dark Thirty, and many other films, the historical accuracy of the story has been the subject of controversy about the degree to which artistic license should be used in historical fiction.[72][73] Most controversy centers around the film's portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and his relationship with King. To many, President Johnson was seen as a champion of civil rights legislation and a proactive partner of King, whereas the film is accused of falsely depicting the President as a reluctant or obstructionist political actor that had the FBI monitor and harass King.[74] Notable criticism came from two associates of President Johnson: LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove[75] and Joseph A. Califano, Jr.. Having served as Johnson's top assistant for domestic affairs and as US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Califano questioned whether the writer and director felt "free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story".[76] SCLC activist and official, and later U.S. Congressman and Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, told The Washington Post that the depiction of the relationship between President Johnson and Dr. King “was the only thing I would question in the movie. Everything else, they got 100 percent right."[77] According to Young, the two were always mutually respectful, and King respected Johnson’s political problems.[77]

Director DuVernay and U.S. Representative John Lewis (whom she portrays when a young man) responded separately that the film Selma is a work of art about the people of Selma, not a documentary. DuVernay said in an interview that she did not see herself as "a custodian of anyone's legacy".[78] In response to criticisms that she rewrote history to portray her own agenda, DuVernay said that the movie is "not a documentary. I'm not a historian. I'm a storyteller".[79] Lewis wrote in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times: "We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?"[80]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Awards and nominations
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result
87th Academy Awards[81] February 22, 2015 Best Picture Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christian Colson and Oprah Winfrey Pending
Best Original Song John Legend/Common, "Glory" Pending
African-American Film Critics Association[82] December 8, 2014 Best Picture Selma Won
Best Director Ava DuVernay Won
Best Actor David Oyelowo Won
Best Music John Legend/Common, “Glory” Won
Alliance of Women Film Journalists[83] January 12, 2015 Best Film Selma Nominated
Best Director Ava DuVernay Nominated
Best Woman Director Ava DuVernay Won
Black Film Critics Circle[84] December 23, 2014 Best Picture Selma Won
Best Director Ava DuVernay Won
Best Actor David Oyelowo Won
Best Supporting Actress Carmen Ejogo Won
Best Original Screenplay Paul Webb Won
Best Ensemble Cast Won
Casting Society of America[85] January 22, 2015 Big Budget Drama Aisha Coley, Robyn Owen Nominated
Central Ohio Film Critics Association[86][87] January 8, 2015 Best Film Selma Won
Best Director Ava DuVernay Won
Best Actor David Oyelowo Won
Best Original Screenplay Paul Webb Won
Best Film Editing Spencer Averick Nominated
Breakthrough Film Artist Ava DuVernay Won
Costume Designers Guild[88] February 17, 2015 Excellence in Period Film Ruth E. Carter Pending
Critics' Choice Movie Awards[89] January 15, 2015 Best Picture Selma Nominated
Best Director Ava DuVernay Nominated
Best Actor David Oyelowo Nominated
Best Acting Ensemble Cast Nominated
Best Song "Glory" Won
Georgia Film Critics Association[90] January 9, 2015 Best Picture Selma Nominated
Best Director Ava DuVernay Nominated
Best Actor David Oyelowo Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Paul Webb Nominated
Best Original Song "Glory" Won
Best Ensemble Nominated
Oglethorpe Award for Excellence in Georgia Cinema Ava DuVernay, Paul Webb Won
Golden Globe Award[91] January 11, 2015 Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture David Oyelowo Nominated
Best Director Ava DuVernay Nominated
Best Drama Motion Picture Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christian Colson, and Oprah Winfrey Nominated
Best Original Song "Glory" – John Legend and Common Won
Houston Film Critics Society Awards[92][93] January 12, 2015 Best Picture Selma Nominated
Best Original Song "Glory" by John Legend and Common Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards[94] February 21, 2015 Best Film Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christian Colson, and Oprah Winfrey Pending
Best Director Ava DuVernay Pending
Best Actor David Oyelowo Pending
Best Supporting Actress Carmen Ejogo Pending
Best Cinematography Bradford Young Pending
Iowa Film Critics[95] January 7, 2015 Best Song "Glory" Runner-up
Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards[96] February 14, 2015 Best Period and/or Character Hair Styling in Feature Length Motion Picture Melissa Forney and Pierce Austin Pending
MPSE Golden Reel Awards[97] February 15, 2015 Feature Music Julie Pearce, Clint Bennett Pending
NAACP Image Award[98] February 6, 2015 Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture David Oyelowo Pending
Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture Ava DuVernay Pending
Outstanding Motion Picture Selma Pending
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture André Holland Pending
Common Pending
Wendell Pierce Pending
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Carmen Ejogo Pending
Oprah Winfrey Pending
Satellite Awards[99] February 15, 2015 Best Film Selma Pending
Best Director Ava DuVernary Pending
Best Actor – Motion Picture David Oyelowo Pending
Best Screenplay – Original Paul Webb Pending
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Awards[100] December 8, 2014 Best Film Selma Nominated
Best Director Ava DuVernay Nominated
Best Actor David Oyelowo Nominated
Best Ensemble Nominated
The Joe Barber Award for Best Portrayal of Washington, DC Nominated
Women Film Critics Circle[101] December 16, 2014 Best Movie by a Woman Selma Won
Best Female Action Star Oprah Winfrey Won


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