There’s a pitched battle being fought in Hollywood over the rights to shoot a Martin Luther King, Jr. movie, one that has raged on in the press since 2010; it’s the War of the Three King Biopics, in which DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. each have struggled to draw first blood with their own projects about the civil rights leader. The melee over winning first claim to an MLK film isn’t especially surprising. Frankly, it’s more of a shock that Tinseltown hasn’t already made a movie about King’s life and times.
Keeping track of the trajectories on these disparate productions has proven difficult at best. Directors and actors have waltzed in and out of the fray as they please, and individual productions repeatedly being stalled and resuscitated (assuming that they even get enough traction to move forward at all, as the case appears to be with Paul Greengrass’ Memphis, as well as Oliver Stone’s unnamed and currently halted movie). But popular conversation on the back and forth at play here is about to change, because at long last, one of the major contestants in the fracas has finally struck a decisive blow in getting their King film into theaters.
That would be Paramount, the studio backing Selma, a film that also has the benefit of having Oprah Winfrey’s considerable cultural cache and celebrity influence in its corner. Not only does Paramount have a full cast assembled to their cause – and a really impressive one, at that – they also have a limited Christmas Day release date pinned down on the 2014 calendar year, with a wide release on January 9th, 2015; the announcement comes straight from Paramount, and puts the company miles ahead in the biopic race.
Officially, Selma will be directed by Ava DuVernay, though this is old news; DuVernay replaced Lee Daniels (The Butler) at the helm a few months ago. That particular changing of the guard is what drew Oprah’s interest in the film in the first place, so clearly Paramount knows what they’re doing as far as greasing the wheels of production goes. But if DuVernay is a relatively unknown quantity (see her solid 2012 drama Middle of Nowhere to familiarize yourself with her work), her cast is anything but. “Star-studded” just doesn’t cut it here.
David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) will play King himself, which is only fair given that the guy has been four years in the running for the role by now. He’ll be joined by Tom Wilkinson, playing Lyndon Baines Johnson; Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King; Andre Holland as Andrew Young; Omar J. Dorsey as James Orange; Alessandro Nivola as John Doar; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White; Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash; Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy; Stephen Root as Al Lingo; Jeremy Strong as James Reeb; and Tim Roth as George Wallace. Oprah herself will portray civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper.
That’s a stacked troupe, though the absence of a James Early Ray – the man who assassinated King – almost says more about what to expect from Selma than any of the actual talent involved. The film only appears to focus on King’s iconic march from the titular Alabama town to Montgomery, an act that impelled President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965; a narrow scope, but that’s okay, as too many biopics (like last year’s Job) get themselves into trouble by trying to jam too much narrative into too small a framework.
We’re a long way from seeing MLK movies get picked up before being unceremoniously dropped, almost within the same action. Hopefully, Paramount has the right people in place to make this film really great; it’s been a long time coming, though not any longer.
Selma will hit US theaters on December 25th, 2014.