News

21 Most Memorable Movie Moments: Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (2014)

Congressman John Lewis and actor Stephan James reflect on the movie's final, triumphant bridge-crossing, and what Selma – the movie and events – means to them.

by | June 18, 2019 | Comments

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. 

VOTE FOR THIS MOMENT IN OUR 21 MOST MEMORABLE MOVIE MOMENTS POLL


THE MOVIE: Selma (2014) 99%

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.

Selma
David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collectio

“Some people did not know that people couldn’t register to vote just because of the color of their skin.”

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.”

“I was so honored to be able to step into Congressman Lewis’s shoes, and I hope I and the rest of the cast did him, and the story, justice.”

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.”

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay on the set of Selma. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collectio

“[Ava] got everybody on the same page and created a familial environment where everybody felt that we were creating this story from a place of love.”

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.”


THE MOMENT: The Final Crossing Of the Bridge

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.

Selma
Wendell Pierce and Stephan James in Selma. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collectio

“Wearing a backpack the same way that I did on March 7, 1965… The young man who played Dr. King was dressed like Martin Luther King Jr. “

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.”

“I think we all understood how sacred that bridge was, and what our jobs were in reenacting this whole moment.”

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.”

Selma
Marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collectio

“You just think about how brave this man is and what he did to inspire a generation of people like him.”

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.”


THE IMPACT: A New Legacy of Activism

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.

“It moved me. They were able to make the drama come alive on the streets of Selma.”

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.”

Stephan James and John Lewis
Stephan James and John Lewis at the premiere of Race. (Photo by Photo by Teresa Kroeger/WireImag

“Words can’t express what it’s meant for me to be a part of a film you’re able to teach to young kids.”

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.”


Selma was released on November 18, 2016. Buy or rent it at FandangNOW.


Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

#1

Selma (2014)
99%

#1
Adjusted Score: 111.511%
Critics Consensus: 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.
Synopsis: SELMA is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther... [More]
Directed By: Ava DuVernay

Tag Cloud

singing competition cancelled halloween social media Marvel Studios Thanksgiving BBC America Pop Amazon Studios Rom-Com Extras 007 foreign Red Carpet Bravo twilight NBC thriller serial killer Watching Series Certified Fresh Writers Guild of America Adult Swim Cartoon Network green book casting richard e. Grant El Rey MSNBC canceled TV shows Western boxoffice joker Sundance TV Black History Month Musical medical drama cars period drama DC Universe Dark Horse Comics Film Festival Lifetime Christmas movies Hulu ITV Pirates VOD versus technology mockumentary TIFF Best and Worst obituary Trailer parents Netflix Christmas movies Mary Poppins Returns MCU X-Men TCA 2017 Star Trek stop motion Nickelodeon fast and furious Trivia Pop TV Binge Guide asian-american The CW Shudder crime drama Lucasfilm best Funimation all-time NYCC book sequel Hear Us Out disaster dc anthology zombie nbcuniversal Vudu docudrama WGN Mary poppins The Arrangement superhero GLAAD cartoon Election Disney Channel elevated horror rotten movies we love Tubi sequels supernatural Polls and Games 2016 A&E SXSW facebook Song of Ice and Fire Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Acorn TV Super Bowl TNT rotten Sundance Now independent MTV strong female leads Winter TV emmy awards Animation The Purge documentaries Summer festivals vampires movies PaleyFest werewolf nfl Marvel Television Reality Competition franchise First Reviews Pride Month directors zombies stand-up comedy Syfy Peacock diversity National Geographic Superheroe cats cancelled television SDCC YouTube laika BBC Nat Geo Turner Classic Movies satire television TV Toys binge Awards BET scary movies Endgame psycho 20th Century Fox crossover E! GoT football Rocky hist game of thrones Spring TV quibi Ovation Walt Disney Pictures 2018 toronto romantic comedy streaming DirecTV Lifetime reviews Fox News Ghostbusters ABC Family unscripted dogs Winners Travel Channel AMC cancelled TV shows Fantasy 2017 BBC One political drama Tomatazos scorecard E3 dceu award winner Sony Pictures Oscars OWN comedies Heroines Film romance crime Schedule children's TV justice league teaser Music finale Stephen King blaxploitation screenings spy thriller reboot revenge robots Masterpiece 2020 zero dark thirty Disney Plus Mary Tyler Moore 4/20 films toy story cinemax Grammys Freeform TCM police drama Comics on TV Christmas Amazon Baby Yoda Disney streaming service war Elton John Comedy Central New York Comic Con worst movies TCA Cosplay Ellie Kemper nature Box Office Musicals Action Horror Photos CBS All Access die hard Amazon Prime talk show documentary Spectrum Originals VICE Quiz Marathons Tarantino Chernobyl christmas movies Mindy Kaling Amazon Prime Video animated IFC Films History sag awards comiccon hispanic Paramount Mystery TBS witnail criterion cops Disney Lionsgate Marvel OneApp Podcast Britbox CW Seed transformers remakes mission: impossible Emmy Nominations video Hallmark slashers renewed TV shows based on movie Holiday Nominations Drama TV renewals worst science fiction YouTube Red miniseries Cannes USA Network Food Network Family true crime President blockbuster 71st Emmy Awards adventure Pixar SundanceTV free movies child's play ESPN festival YouTube Premium name the review YA dramedy 2015 discovery sports Tumblr The Walking Dead Star Wars RT21 dark IFC Creative Arts Emmys historical drama natural history 24 frames Biopics psychological thriller venice a nightmare on elm street latino Sundance Reality Rocketman universal monsters Martial Arts jamie lee curtis Showtime FX ghosts indiana jones Premiere Dates comics TCA Awards ABC Kids & Family video on demand DC streaming service Columbia Pictures aliens BAFTA Teen LGBTQ FXX CNN composers movie Pet Sematary Hallmark Christmas movies Opinion 21st Century Fox Women's History Month mutant doctor who FOX CMT Classic Film stoner Character Guide 72 Emmy Awards Apple TV+ critics APB CBS Video Games spider-man anime crime thriller Netflix HBO Go kids south america breaking bad TCA Winter 2020 Logo cults TruTV DGA dragons classics Sci-Fi concert WarnerMedia canceled spain hollywood Fall TV space chucky Crunchyroll Valentine's Day Year in Review Infographic Television Critics Association Disney+ Disney Plus theme song First Look DC Comics 45 See It Skip It Sneak Peek TLC Arrowverse cancelled TV series spanish language USA Esquire American Society of Cinematographers spinoff sitcom Starz Apple TV Plus Crackle BET Awards Spike Television Academy Black Mirror Calendar series travel Trophy Talk indie A24 Avengers Universal FX on Hulu Anna Paquin ratings Academy Awards Country PBS Comedy batman Discovery Channel GIFs Turner cooking Rock Brie Larson Paramount Network HBO Max Shondaland biography TV Land Emmys VH1 San Diego Comic-Con Captain marvel news Mudbound PlayStation tv talk comic Epix Comic Book Apple Holidays HBO Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt golden globes RT History 2019 Set visit politics The Witch what to watch Awards Tour Superheroes harry potter Countdown game show screen actors guild adaptation LGBT Interview Warner Bros.