Martin Luther King film Selma generates Oscar buzz

Selma is due for limited release in December to qualify for the Oscars and focuses on a short period after the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act in the United States.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in a scene from Selma. Courtesy Cloud Eight Films
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Critics are predicting awards season glory for Selma, a powerful new film about the civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

Co-starring Oprah Winfrey and the rising British star David Oyelowo, the film received a standing ovation in Hollywood as the industry journal Variety forecast "considerable box-office and awards-season gold".

The film, due for limited release in the United States on December 25 to qualify for the Oscars, focuses on a short period after the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, the law that abolished segregation and discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin in the US.

Despite their new rights, African-Americans still faced bullying to prevent them from registering to vote.

The movie opens with a racist bomb attack on a church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black schoolgirls. The attention then rapidly turns to Selma, another town in the southern US state that is known as the cradle of the civil-rights struggle.

The former talk-show queen Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper, a modest and dignified nurse who is blocked and humiliated by a small-town official as she tries to register to vote.

King – who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – heads to Selma to lead demonstrations and a celebrated march in the Alabama capital, Montgomery.

The violent clampdown on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, sparked a national outcry and triggered a movement that forced president Lyndon Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Co-produced by Pathé, Winfrey and Brad Pitt's Plan B production company, the film has Oyelowo – who appears in Interstellar and the forthcoming film A Most Violent Year – playing King as determined and charismatic, yet human.

It depicts the US Secret Service’s attempts to trip him up by bugging his conversations, shadowing him and trying to get at him through his wife, Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo.

Coretta was in fact harassed by the FBI with anonymous racist threats and also with recordings of her pastor husband allegedly frolicking with other women.

King’s doubts, struggles and disagreements with other civil-rights leaders, including Malcolm X and student activists in Selma, are also portrayed in detail.

“David [Oyelowo] is the reason I came on board,” says Winfrey.

She says they had become "fast friends" on the set of The Butler, a film by the director Lee Daniels, who is due to attend the Dubai International Film Festival next month to head up the jury for the Muhr Feature Awards. The Butler was widely tipped for Oscar glory but in the end failed to earn any nominations.

Oyelowo, who is of Nigerian origin, says he dreamed in 2007 that he would one day play Martin Luther King Jr.

The Selma director Ava DuVernay says the film shoot, which mostly took place in Selma itself, resonated strongly with local people.

“Everybody knew Annie Lee Cooper there,” she says.

Speaking about seeking inspiration for the soundtrack, the American rapper Common says: “I just had to turn on the TV and see what was happening in Ferguson,” the Missouri town torn by racial unrest in the past few months.