Aretha Franklin turned up at the premiere of “Selma” at the Ziegfeld Theater Sunday night and looked terrific in a leopard print fur jacket. She waved to the crowd and created a tsunami of excitement on the red carpet. One videographer threw himself worshipfully on the ground at her feet. The Queen of Soul looked bemused, but also like this was nothing new to her.
(Later at the afterparty, Alessandro Nivola, who appears in the film, tweeted: I met Aretha Franklin tonight at my #Selma premier. I said “hello my love” and she stared at me blankly. I couldn’t be happier!)
“Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey, who also appears in the film, shines a light on a small group of people, how they changed history and what they endured for the right to vote in 1965. Aretha Franklin told reporters that artists should do their part by encouraging people, especially young people, to vote.
“This is what I’ve been saying from the beginning of the line all the way down to here,” she noted. “I really would like to see the young adults in this country become more involved politically, get into more of what our government is about, what the different factions of the government are about.”
She added, “Just get more involved. And when we vote, vote more regularly, with regularity. Don’t just vote when you think it’s critical. Vote with regularity. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about anything.”
The premiere was a mix of celebration and somberness. Some actors, including Corey Reynolds and Michael Kenneth Williams, wore black t-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner before he died after a police officer put him in an illegal chokehold. Protesters marched after the grand jury refused to indict the police officer responsible for Mr. Garner’s death and, coincidentally, they marched outside the hotel where the “Selma” press conference took place earlier in the day.
At the junket, director Ava DuVernay spoke about the issues that galvanized people to march in Selma in 1965, and how they intersected with the tragic events in Ferguson and Staten Island. “I think it is a jaw dropping thing that this piece of art can meet this cultural moment that’s so rich, that so robust, that’s so bursting with energy of people amplifying their voices. This film is about voice,” she said. “We’re sitting here in this hotel doing interviews about how these marches changed the nation while I hear people marching outside.”
A journalist asked if the movie’s release date was timed to recent events. “We always had a Christmas date,” she said. “It is kismet.”
I asked Ava DuVernay why there are so few women directors and what women could do to tell their stories on screen. “We need to work without permission,” she told me. “If we wait for permission, we ask for permission, we exist in a permission based industry without making change, then it’ll never happen. That’s why you see so many women in documentaries, so many women in independent films doing great things. Those are great places to be. We need to keep working in the space we can.”
On the red carpet, Oprah Winfrey told me she strongly believes that movies can affect social change. “Movies allow you to think about what’s been done before and allow you to see – in this movie, in particular – what’s come before, and to me, it’s really about the rigorous discipline of peaceful protest and what strategy does when you know what you want.”
David Oyelowo is the heart of the film as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He told me that in inhabiting the role, he had to find the timbre and rumbling of Dr. King’s voice. He credited his dialect coach, Elizabeth Himelstein, who helped him with all his American roles. He also watched footage and listened to Dr. King give his famous speeches.
“But the tougher thing was finding out how he spoke away from the pulpit, away from the press, away from talking to presidents. He was quite different. And that came from talking to the likes of Andrew Young and being exposed to unseen footage of him home with his kids eating fried chicken. Just messing about with his friends. So it was quite a layered approach to finding him.”
Oyelowo, who is British, told me he stayed in character as Dr. King for the three months they shot in Atlanta. “I just felt like my English accent would not instill confidence in people if I went around talking like this,” he said.
The resonant voice of Dr. King did come out unexpectedly at times, he told me, even in restaurants. “I’m afraid it did. It gets you your order very quickly.”
Tim Roth, who plays Gov. George Wallace in “Selma,” passed by on the red carpet before we could grab him, but his scenes with Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson reveal some engaging verbal sparring between the men.
At the press conference, Roth explained how he found his way into the character. “You’ve got to tap into your inner racist, which everybody’s got.” He added that his American father, who moved them to England, was a social activist and took him to demonstrations.
“King was a presence in our house, as was Wallace. Wallace was a monstrous human being. He was a two-dimensional kind of animal and someone to loathe for good reason. But when Ava came to me to say have a go at it, what am I supposed to do? You’ve got to get a three-dimensional walking sort of bag of bones, so I had to try and find some kind of humanity, something I could latch onto.”
Roth said he found a story where Wallace’s son talked about him, and it revealed to him another side of this man. “I grabbed onto that, but he was horrible, which is fun to play.” Then he looked over at Ava DuVernay, who laughed. “We laughed a lot. The more racist I was, the more she laughed.”