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“It’s one of the important stories of our history, and it’s important not just for African American people, obviously, to know it, but it’s important for our country,” Oprah Winfrey told reporters on Sunday, before the actor-producer watched the title for the sixth time. “What brings me to tears and to my knees is when the actual footage is used at the end of the film, and you see…each person from different backgrounds, different races, taking care of each other in that 54-mile march. The fact that that can happen. And then you look out on the streets and some of the same thing is happening today. When they say enough is enough. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ exactly as Dr. King said.”
Tyler Perry stepped out to support the title and the recent demonstrations in honor of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner tragedies. “The timing of it is perfect, because it teaches us about peaceful protests — arson, vandalism, those things are not the way, and change does not happen until everyone comes together collectively,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “The beauty of these protests is that every race is represented, and that’s when change happens. That’s what happens in the movie. It’s eerie how similar the marches are.”
After participating in the Millions March for four hours on Saturday, Wendell Pierce attended the premiere in an “I Can’t Breathe” tee, making him one of the first celebrities to don the statement shirt on the red carpet. “Selma is not some historic film; it’s a film that’s very present and very real.… This is just a reminder of what’s happening in present day to make sure that people’s rights are protected.” Pierce’s The Wire co-star Michael Kenneth Williams paused in his Gambler promotional duties to also walk the red carpet in the tee. “This shirt is a representation of my voice — my voice matters, my life matters, my children’s lives matter, and I’m wearing this to support everybody’s voice who feels an injustice has been done,” he explained. To protesters, he wished to say, “Keep it positive, and keep it going.”
Before celebrating at the premiere’s after-party, members of the cast stood in front of the New York Public Library wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” tees.
THR asked the cast and creatives what today’s protesters can learn from Selma.
Oprah Winfrey: “The lesson of the movie is strategy. Strategic planning, rigorous discipline, peaceful protest, and knowing what you want.”
Ava DuVernay: “Oh god, so much to learn from the film about tactics and strategy, an approach to things. That’s my real hope, that people watch it and learn something.”
David Oyelowo: “Thankfully, we’re seeing a lot of the same good sides of protests happening with these protests — i.e., that they are nonviolent, and that we are now seeing black and white and everything in between coming together against injustice. I think that the next step for us to be able to really articulate our demands. What is it we want out of this? In Selma, it was voting rights, and now it’s police reform. We needed federal intervention for the verdict situation [in Selma]; I would say we need the same thing for the police. Who’s going to police the police? We really need to press to the government that this cannot go on.”
Lorraine Toussaint: “The individual does have the power to actually bring about change. And how young they were — twenties and thirties. They were very young and fierce and fearless. I hope that our young people can have a modicum of that kind of fearlessness that brings about change.”
Niecy Nash: “Protesting and demonstrating is one thing, but voting is the other thing. Gotta exercise that right to vote, because you’re choosing the people who you want in office and to serve your community.”
Wendell Pierce: “It’s not about activism, it’s about Americanism…. The civil rights movement isn’t about the back of the bus or a water fountain; there’s blood on that ballot box. People died to ensure our vote, and they didn’t just die on foreign shores in foreign wars, they died on country roads in Alabama, Mississippi, and all over this country to make sure that these people who are Americans have a right to vote. Those folks who are trying to address those issues today have this wonderful blueprint of a time that came before.”
Andre Holland: “Take that energy and put it toward a targeted goal. At that time, Martin Luther King was the mouthpiece of the movement, and people knew he was articulating what people wanted. That’s what we need now to go from the protests to actually legislation and actual changes. It doesn’t have to be someone who’s not already a leader, but I think there has to be an agreement that when we’re marching up and down the streets, we know exactly what we want and we know exactly who to go to for those things to happen.”
Trai Byers: “If you don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, you’re bound to repeat it. As you look at Ferguson, you’ll see Selma; as you look at Selma, you’ll see Ferguson. What did they do then to get people to rise up, and what can we do now in a manner that brings unity and not destruction?”
What will moviegoers discover about the civil rights icon onscreen? “It sounds very obvious, but the fact that he [King] was a human being,” said Oyelowo. “I think often we look at him as an icon, a catchphrase; we’ve relegated him in a sense to four words: ‘I had a dream.’ Not only was he so much more than that, but he was like us. He had fears, he had doubts, and yet he did it anyway. I hope people come away seeing in him the greatness in themselves.” He sees such already in today’s protesters, but also warns them, “Don’t let Christmas turkey make us take our focus off what needs to be done. This battle isn’t going to be won quickly.”
Additionally, “what I found fascinating is that he was a great manipulator of the media,” said Carmen Ejogo. “He was somebody that I think, in this day and age, would be utilizing Twitter and Instagram to really activate and galvanize people from the ground level up. I didn’t know that he was a master strategist.” Holland noted, “Early on, you see him taking out the trash, and it’s a small thing. There’s other things going on amid that, but that simple act of domesticity, to me, really speaks to the man behind the man.” And Byers observed King’s “involvement with other groups — because he’s such an iconic figure, we look at him like a standalone. But there were so many other people involved.”
Many cast members described the Selma shoot as spiritual. Before filming the Bloody Sunday scenes on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the cast gathered for prayer, said Toussaint. “As we looked over the bridge into those murky waters, we knew there were many, many bodies, bones of the people we were hoping to honor — they were there beneath us, literally holding up this bridge. You can’t do that work without feeling something about that.” And Tessa Thompson recalled how DuVernay would deliver direction to a large crowd. “Instead of yelling, ‘Can everybody hear me?’ she would just put her fist up, and if people could hear her, they’d put their fist up too. You would have hundreds of people with their fists up…. It was beautiful.”
Also in attendance from the cast were Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Lakeith Stanfield, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Alessandro Nivola, as well as Martin Luther King III, Aretha Franklin, Gayle King, Tia Mowry, Celia Weston and Empire’s Grace Gealey, among others.
Paramount chairman Brad Grey introduced Duvernay to a standing ovation. She admitted to the audience that “the last time I was at the Ziegfeld, I was a publicist on the red carpet!” and that she and the film’s team are honored “to present this film in this rich, cultural moment that we’re in, so ripe, so robust with people amplifying their voices for change, trying to right a wrong. We were at the junket yesterday talking about the film and how the nation was changed through political activity and marches, and we could hear people marching right downstairs, right outside. I’m privileged to present the film in this moment. We hope it can add to the conversation in some way.”
Selma hits theaters Dec. 25.
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