The Revolutionary Women of ‘Selma’

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is important not only for its story, but because of the spotlight it places on women like Coretta King, who isn’t reduced to a stoic matriarch or devoted spouse.

12.26.14 10:45 AM ET

The “Black Lives Matter” movement has spread across the globe in the wake of several high-profile instances of police killing unarmed black people. The burgeoning crusade has separated itself from earlier, similar civil movements in a myriad of ways; not the least of which is the fact that women have largely been recognized as being at the forefront. Whether coming up with the #BlackLivesMatter slogan and hashtag, organizing events like the Black Friday Boycott and the 2014 National Moment of Silence last August, there is little doubt that black women have been organizers and leaders of marches and protests happening in places like Ferguson, MO and New York City.

With Ava DuVernay’s highly-anticipated Civil Rights drama Selma opening in limited release this week (wide release Jan. 9), there is already buzz about the director’s take on the 1965 Selma marches and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But one element of Selma that is clearly unique and revolutionary in its own right is the way DuVernay weaved notable women into what could’ve been a male-dominated narrative.

Alongside more well-known luminaries such as Andrew Young and John Lewis, movement leaders like SNCC founder Diane Nash and her ex-husband, SCLC leader James Bevel, are showcased in the film. Notable women like Nash, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Viola Liuzzo and Annie Lee Cooper don’t seem to be quite as embedded in the national consciousness as Lewis or Young, and DuVernay’s film provides a touchstone for those unfamiliar with these women, and it gives a new perspective on the movement’s principle participants.

Carmen Ejogo, who stars as Coretta Scott King in the film, revealed how much this film does to acknowledge the role that women played in this pivotal moment in history. 

“Being women of the 60s—that was not focused on,” observes Ejogo. “We had to wait until Selma to become aware of the Diane Nashes in any meaningful way—or at least have their presence next to a James Bevel. That was a partnership, but Diane’s contribution was just as relevant and immense as James Bevel’s. Or Annie Lee Cooper or Amelia Boynton.”

“Coretta at this point in history was really not as present as some of those women in terms of on-the-ground work,” explains Ejogo. “However, her emotional contribution to Martin’s well-being is immeasurable and I think that the film tries to explore that. And I think the same can be said of all those women. There may be varying degrees as far as participation in these day-to-day workings of any of these movements, but the emotional dynamicthat gets so taken for granted.”

And Coretta isn’t reduced to a stoic matriarch or simply a confidant and devoted spouse—as played by Ejogo, she’s alternately frustrated, afraid and deeply hurt by what is happening around her and her family—while also comforting MLK as he wrestles with the weight of leadership. Having portrayed Coretta previously (in 2001s HBO film Boycott), Ejogo looked at this particular performance as a way to expose those nuances in both Coretta’s personality and in her relationship with her husband.

“It felt like Boycott was the macro and Selma was the micro—a look into these people,” she says, reflecting on how her earlier, extensive research into Coretta was, in some ways, better showcased in this more recent performance. “For this one, I felt that I could do some of the work. Boycott wasn’t about the relationship in the way that this film does get into that.”

And Ejogo credits her director for many of those added elements. DuVernay was committed to not minimizing the impact of women on the Civil Rights Movement, an approach that was inspired and has proven to be quite timely.

“I’m just grateful that Ava added all of these women to a script that was devoid of women. None of these characters were in this film, with the [exception] of one small scene with Coretta in the original Paul Webb version,” she says. “So, I’m very grateful for Ava’s contribution because it was definitely a very male-centric perspective that was actually focusing more on the LBJ and MLK relationship. It would’ve been a completely different movie without Ava. “

There is quite a lot riding on Selma. Being released in times that seem to reflect the unrest that audiences will watch unfold onscreen brings with it a certain responsibility that none of the filmmakers could have foreseen. But everyone seemed to always understand the importance of this film. From her approach to telling this story, to she and the cast posing with “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts as a show of support to the current Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Eric Garner, it’s clear that Ava DuVernay was ready to carry that weight.  And according to Ejogo, everyone rose to the challenge.

“I really felt like all of us were given the job by Ava because she knew that we’d approach it from a very authentic, honest, visceral place,” says Ejogo. “No one was caught up in their ego or trying to look pretty. It was none of that stuff was going on here. There was a very honest approach from everybody to make this movie everything it deserved to be.”