Watch: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and actor Stephan James on the making of Selma above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, Congressman John Lewis and actor Stephan James, who portrayed Rep. Lewis in Selma, share their memories from production and reflect on the movie’s importance.
Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of activists and religious leaders marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest voting discrimination, Ava DuVernay released Selma into theaters. The first film from a major studio to chronicle the Civil Rights icon’s life, Selma was no Wikipedia-style, all-encompassing biopic; instead, the movie focused on three months of the southern pastor’s life, and – after documenting earlier attempts to start the march in devastating scenes – culminated in a moving recreation of the historic procession across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that began the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.
With meticulous attention to historical accuracy, stirring drama, and memorable imagery, Selma heralded publicist-turned-director DuVernay’s arrival as one of the most significant African American filmmakers of her time; she would become, with Selma, the only Black woman to have directed a Best Picture nominee, and go on to such landmark achievements as the documentary 13th and this year’s Netflix miniseries When They See Us. It also offered a new and nuanced take on Dr. King – magnificently portrayed by David Oyelowo – and educated a whole new generation on the fight for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was there back in 1965, walking the bridge with Dr. King, and here he reflects on making the movie and its impact, along with Stephan James, who portrays him on screen.
Rep. John Lewis: “I truly believe that Oprah, Ava, and the staff working on the film sought my involvement because they knew my history. Selma represented an attempt to redeem the soul of America, to help us move closer to the participation of all people in the political process. This film can educate and inform the mind of hundreds and thousands of young people around America and around the world. So many people did not know that people couldn’t register to vote just because of the color of their skin. They did not know that people were segregated. They did not know that lawyers and doctors, college professors, and teachers we discriminated against simply because of the color of their skin. They’re not participating in the democratic process. They did not understand that people were murdered attempting to register to vote. It was real. The whole story of Selma and the State of Alabama.”
Stephan James: “I was so honored to be able to step into Congressman Lewis’s shoes and I hope that I and the rest of the cast did him, and the story, justice. Really it was just about being grateful to him and gracious to him, for being such a big supporter of the film, a supporter of me. He’s always made me feel like this role was meant for me. He’s always expressed how proud he is of the film and of his portrayal. So for me, it’s just one of those things you’re just grateful for. You just wanna tell him how much you’re thankful for what he’s accomplished.”
James: “Ava really is one of a kind. It takes a special sort of filmmaker to pull off what she did in Selma. And on her first big-budget film. She really hadn’t made a film for over a million dollars before Selma. And for me, I can just remember being just a little bit in awe of the way she helmed the set. We had all these days of hundreds of background actors, horses, and just wild and crazy things. It could be a lot for a director. But she got everybody on the same page and created this familial environment where everybody felt [the] energy that we were creating this story from a place of love, and understood the responsibility in telling the story.”
Under the crippling Alabama sun, the movie’s cast of Oscar-caliber actors, talented newcomers, and hundreds of background players and crew members assembled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to recreate history – over and over. The film depicts three attempts to cross the bridge. The first attempt took place March 7, 1965, and became known as “Bloody Sunday” after State Troopers attacked the protesters – a confrontation DuVernay captures in unsparing detail. Two days later, Dr. King led a group of thousands to the bridge, including clergy from across the country who took to their knees to pray with him in front of gathered troopers, before he turned the march around – a pivotal move that encouraged President Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights bill into Congress shortly thereafter. The final time we see the bridge is for DuVernay’s depiction of the events of March 21, 1965, when Dr. King led the federally sanctioned march from Selma that would end with a rally on the steps of the Montgomery capitol four days later. It’s this final triumphant march in the film that lingers as a testament to what Dr. King achieved, but much of its power rests on the raw depiction of the events that preceded it.
Rep. Lewis: “I did have a chance to spend time with the young man who played me and the young man who played Martin Luther King Jr. I got to know them fairly well. The two young people that I got to know, they really became the embodiment of the whole struggle in Selma. They made the film so real, not only the way they spoke but the clothing that they wore. I really loved the way they tried to walk in our shoes. It made the film so real with the young man wearing a trench coat and wearing a backpack the same way that I did. The young man who played Dr. King was dressed like Martin Luther King Jr., and he spoke like Martin Luther King Jr.”
James: “It’s a big credit to the great wardrobe stylists, the head of costumes, Ruth E. Carter. We were totally factual in terms of the clothes of John Lewis, Dr. King, and everybody on Bloody Sunday. We were 100 percent accurate. We followed those photos from those exact moments.”
James: “We didn’t have a whole lot of time. I’d say maybe three to five [takes] of the full walk. There are so many people, cast and background actors; we only have a few shots at this. And everybody would just get together, get on the same page and did it in unison. I can’t remember how many people there were but, cast and crew included, and there was just this sort of solemn sort of energy where everybody sort of understood what we were doing. I think we all understood how sacred that bridge was and what our jobs were in reenacting this whole moment. We were retracing historical footsteps – I mean you’re literally tracing the steps. These steps that have guided us through the history of our country. It’s meaningful. And it gets to the point where you’re not just making a film; you’re recreating a moment in time.”
Rep. Lewis: “I did get an opportunity to visit the set at a church in Atlanta. And while being there, visiting the set, a storm came up, and it started thundering and lightning, and they had to cut off the filming for a while and start it over again. But it reminded me of sometimes, during mass beatings and rallies and church services, a storm would come up, in Alabama or some other part of the deep south, and you had to get in the action.”
James: “I really hadn’t spoken to John in the flesh. I had some communications with him through email. But to actually see him in the flesh for the first time… He walked in the middle of one of our scenes, and it was one of those moments where everything like freezes, and he’s the only person who is still in real time. You just think about how brave this man is and what he did to inspire a generation of people like him who are changing the world now today. And he’s still doing incredible work. I just saw him the other day at the Academy Awards. We shared a little moment. It’s pretty special to meet a guy like that in person and just know the impact he’s had on your life and the impact that he’s had on the world.”
Selma earned rightful praise for its historical accuracy, the nuance and beauty of its storytelling, and for its performances – it sits Certified Fresh at 99% on the Tomatometer. And it ushered in a new wave of formidable talent; not just DuVernay, but Oyelowo and co-stars like Tessa Thompson, LaKeith Stanfield, Andre Holland, and, of course, James, who would go on to star in Amazon’s Homecoming. Its impact off-camera has been powerful, too. Selma has become a standard in history classes, and some say it was the turning point for major changes to the Academy Awards.
The movie received two Oscar nominations at the 2015 ceremony: Best Picture and Best Original Song for “Glory,” performed by John Legend and featuring Common, which would win on the night. But many moviegoers and industry insiders were shocked to see DuVernay and Oyelowo left out of the Best Director and Best Actor categories, respectively. Frustrated by the snubs and the fact that no persons of color were nominated for major awards that year, Twitter user April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that trended globally for several days, and which had an impact that would last years. The Academy responded to the controversy by passing new rules and voting guidelines that helped to make membership more closely resemble that of the general moviegoing audience. The efforts have resulted in a new crop of Academy voters and possibly the nominations that would go to non-traditional films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Get Out, and The Shape of Water. In recreating history, DuVernay had made some history of her own.
Rep. Lewis: “Watching the film and just listening to the music. It moved me. They were able to make the drama come alive on the streets of Selma. To make the words, the suffering, the tears, the crying, but also the strength and the determination that, in spite of everything, that we were going to continue until we got the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. People started singing ‘Glory.’ I watched with students — high school, elementary school, teachers, parents — and we just start singing ‘Glory’ and I start singing, and they cry, then I cry, and we are crying together. Because you cannot separate the essence of Selma without ‘Glory.'”
James: “I can’t remember anything that I’ve been prouder to be a part of than Selma. I think the way that the whole film came together… I just felt incredibly fortunate to have been a part of that cast, with that ensemble, under the direction of Ava. And to share that moment with my mom and my cousins who I brought to the film’s premiere. I don’t know, it felt like a dream come true and something I won’t forget.”
James: “Selma feels like a triumph; it’s always felt like a triumph. Words can’t express what it’s meant for me to be a part of a film like that, where you’re able to teach to young kids. It blows me away that we’re able to show this story to young kids. Selma is in high schools, and middle schools, and kids are able to learn not just about the history of this country but the history of the world. And to learn about these young men and young women who were out there on the front lines of justice every day doing things, sacrificing things that we couldn’t imagine, just so we can do what we’re able to do today. That to me is the defining purpose of what Selma means, the fact that we’re able to teach people about history. A history that often gets watered down and washed away with time. And what better way to do that than through cinema? It strikes me as an important film and important moment for cinema.”