Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wendell Pierce on Filming 'Selma' and Why It's One of the Highlights of His Life

Ava DuVernay's "Selma" is a wonderful film, a moving and powerful tribute to the American civil rights pioneers who helped bring about tremendous changes to their nation. Along with the likes of Nobel Laureate Martin Luther King Jr., a large number of equally committed individuals fought for the rights of their community against injustice.

One of the key participants of that Bloody Sunday that occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the Reverend Hosea Williams, member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and close associate with Dr. King. In the film he is played by Wendell Pierce, himself a vocal champion for justice and a tremendous talent to boot. As one of the backbone players on shows such as "The Wire" and "Treme," with "Selma" Pierce brings out some of his trademark wit and that exquisite baritone voice.

Moviefone Canada spoke with Pierce about his involvement in the film, the challenges of bringing this story to life, and how the role was received by those that actually marched across that bridge.

Moviefone Canada: What, if any, connection or relationship did you have with Hosea Williams before the project?

Wendell Pierce: I knew of Hosea Williams, I knew what his role was in the civil rights movement. All of the lieutenants around Martin Luther King were leaders in their own right. He had done so much work in Savannah, Georgia, and Atlanta, so I was very familiar with him. Like most people, I knew that he was in this seminal moment in civil rights history, on Bloody Sunday, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with John Lewis, the two men in our psyche when it comes to that day.

When I was offered the role, there was one thing that I knew would be in the film. You couldn't do a movie about Selma without that iconic image of them standing face-to-face with the Alabama troopers, so I knew I wanted to be a part of that image. I was just really honoured to be a part of the film. The research and preparation for it and all, it just cemented my knowledge of him further and deepened my understanding of how far he went, all of the battles that he fought. [Plus], how he's still impacting lives today, with his hunger project and the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, a non-profit that outlives him and lives on in his honour.

The film does a remarkable job of dealing with subtlety, of dealing with not only all of the elements going on at the time, and a humanization of iconic characters like Dr. King. Do you see this telling as being particularly unique, and do you attribute that to DuVernay?

What's very unique about the portrayal here is it shows you that it wasn't happenstance, that there was a wealth of strategy. It was a strategized political movement understanding the consequences, the pros and the cons, the different points of view, what should be prioritized, what shouldn't be prioritized.

In the course of the retelling and looking back on the civil rights movement, a lot of people get lost in the mythology of it. That lessens what a great strategized movement it was, these lawyers and reverends and astute observers of the political system and [their] understanding of human nature and human behaviour, so that a non-violent movement could actually bring a great sense of power, and explaining that to folks who were participating in it.

What I liked about the movie is that fact that it wasn't about sitting anywhere you wanted to on a bus, or drinking from a certain water fountain or being able to access any restaurant you go to. It was a battle front and frontline where people's lives were at stake. Even more importantly, people lost their lives. I like to remind people that there's blood on that ballot box.

The American telling of our story of freedom and fighting for freedom, we always celebrate our armed forces saying that they made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy our freedoms here in America. Well, this movie is reminding us that there were ordinary citizens, not on some foreign shores but right in their own hometowns, who made the ultimate sacrifice to make sure that we had access to the freedoms that are guaranteed in the Constitution, making this nation live up to its values that were on paper but weren't in practice.

One of the moments that I remember in filming was standing on a bridge after we had finished the last day. The sun was setting, it was at dusk, and I stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge alone, just looking down at the Alabama River. It was as if all the souls and the people who lost their lives, those bodies that were lost in the depths of that river were speaking out, saying "Remember us, tell our story, make sure they know what happened here."

It was a profound moment, to be standing on that hallowed ground, knowing that for so many nameless and faceless people who lost their lives, that we would be honouring them by telling this story. That's the uniqueness of this movie. It doesn't just make it some mythology of American history, it's poignant, how important even the battles of today are; the continuum and strategy and the humanness of the people who were a part of it show you, give you even more knowledge that you, as an individual, can also change the world.

I was surprised when the credits rolled that you actually shot in Selma.

It was profoundly moving because there were people there who acted as our background actors who were in the march. Two famous little girls who you see in interviews in documentary films talking to Martin Luther King, who Hosea had picked up, they were there.

Some of the folks who are now in their 80s and 70s came out to be a part of the movie. Between set-ups we were told this is what happened, this is how it happened, that person standing over there watching is the daughter or son or the grandson or granddaughter of the city councilman who fought us and stayed away.

I actually did something: I asked Stan Houston, who plays [Sheriff] Jim Clark, to see what the attitudes among all the extras were like. It was really interesting how he was able to come back and report. Some people haven't changed their opinions. [Houston] has gone so far as to get flack from the very people related to Jim Clark and who lived in town. He's getting feedback that he shouldn't have portrayed him, and why he gave a portrayal that wasn't going to be flattering.

We realized that we were on the very bridge where this happened, we were on the very spot where this happened. Edmund Pettus was actually a Klansman, [so there's] the irony that this seminal civil rights moment happened on a bridge named after a KKK member. It shows you the irony and pain and the shared experience in history that everyone on both sides shares. It's until we come to an understanding that this is a shared experience and a shared original sin of America, we'll never get to a place of understanding.

It was not just a movie, it was one of the highlights and profoundly cathartic moments in my life.

Yet this isn't simply a documentary, it's a film with the conventional act structure of drama. What was your own reaction to the telling?

You look at the work that Martin Luther King did over a 13-year period when he was in the public eye -- how could you begin to depict and show the impact that he had?

People lost their lives, black and white and young and old, and I thought to take this one moment in the 13-year arc, it would illuminate reality, show the specificity of who he was as a man, realizing the ever-present shadow of his own death, realizing that he had his own challenges within his organization, which impacted challenges within his family. [Also] knowing that the full weight and resources of the American government were against him, challenging his fate of whether or not he was doing something that was going to be beneficial, [whether] he was doing the right thing for his people, jeopardizing their lives.

You see at the end of the movie that he was 39 at the time of his assassination. To think of where you are at 39, it just shows you that impact. And he started at 26, you know? That was the thing that they'd learned from other successful biopics, to take one moment of significance in the whole volume of things that the person had done and you'll be able to illuminate the whole arc.

The more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. You can't look at this movie and see it as just some black movie from the '60s, a black movement from the '60s. You look at this and you go, wow, this is a movement that has been replicated around the world where people learned from this strategy, learned from this man who opened people's eyes. It's Capetown to Myanmar and ongoing in Hong Kong today. You cannot sit and watch this film without thinking about what's happening in the world today, happening here in America today, happening around the world.

How have people like Congressman John Lewis responded to the film?

We had a special screening in Santa Barbara as we honoured the legends who paved the way. Oprah invited them to a special screening, and to sit there with C.T. Vivian, and Juanita Abernathy, Ralph Abernathy's widow, Myrlie Evers, who was Medgar Evers' widow, Jesse Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Marian Wright Edelman, who started the Children's Defense Fund, Diane Nash ... all of these men and women who were part of this movement.

To have them there in the theatre to see this film, and to get their blessing, was one of the most satisfying moments. We wanted to get their blessing, we wanted to make sure we did right by them. For years to come, people will come to know them through our film. We knew we had a great responsibility to do them honour.

They actually talked to John Lewis and asked him about Hosea and that moment of walking across the bridge, and to get his approval. [He said] it's a job well done, you guys are telling our story and so many people are going to really understand what we went through because of the movie. That was one of those moments in your career where it goes beyond the actual work itself.

This whole experience of this movie is really very cathartic and a powerful moment, for me to honour those fathers and mothers, my parents' generation. My father's going to be 90 years old in a few weeks, and for him to be able to see this movie and I'm able to thank him, it's truly an honour.

"Selma" is opening in Canadian theatres on January 9, 2015. It is already playing in select U.S. theatres.

Selma- Trailer No. 1

from The Moviefone Blog


No comments:

Post a Comment