EXCLUSIVE: I’ve learned that writer-director Ava DuVernay has been set by Pathe UK, Brad Pitt’s Plan B and producer Christian Colson to helm Selma, a feature drama about Martin Luther King‘s 1965 landmark voting rights campaign regarded as the peak of the civil rights movement. She reportedly has been scouting locations and fine-tuning the script with screenwriter Paul Webb since April, and the producers are eager to get rolling in front of camera before similar MLK-themed projects can do the same. DuVernay was the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance for her second feature, last year’s drama Middle Of Nowhere. The former publicist apparently was approached by the Selma producers after they saw the microbudgeted indie, which was shot in 19 days in and around LA. She will reunite with her Middle Of Nowhere leading man David Oyelowo (The Butler, Lincoln), who is set to play King in Selma. DuVernay in repped by Paradigm.
Related: OSCARS Q&A: Ava DuVernay
Selma is the project Lee Daniels was attached to direct, but the funding couldn’t come together in time and he subsequently signed on to The Butler, which The Weinstein Company will release August 16 (though maybe not under that title). Daniels had lined up a terrific cast — Oyelowo, Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, Ray Winstone, Robert De Niro, and Cedric the Entertainer were among those who’d circled. The actors agreed to work cheap and left schedules open. Jackman even gained 30 pounds to play Jim Clark, a sheriff who arrested King; he eventually had to go lose the weight to star in Real Steel.
Among the other MLK projects in the works as the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech looms this August are Paul Greengrass and Scott Rudin’s Memphis, about King’s final days. That picture was originally shelved after Universal Pictures dropped out, and Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin moved on to make Captain Phillips, the Sony drama about the Somali pirate heist that stars Tom Hanks. The Memphis script depicts King’s struggle to organize a protest march on behalf of striking black municipal sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, where he was slain. The storyline is juxtaposed with an intense manhunt for King’s assassin James Earl Ray, involving some of the federal authorities who, at Hoover’s direction, had dogged King’s every step with wiretaps and whispering campaigns before the civil rights leader’s death.
There’s also Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating DreamWorks-Reliance movie that revolves around King and the civil rights leader’s admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. DreamWorks acquired the civil rights leader’s life rights from the King Estate in 2009 and later set Ronald Harwood to write a script. Scribe Kario Salem boarded the project in a 2011 incarnation for DreamWorks and Warner Bros. Then there’s the HBO miniseries America: In the King Years, from Harpo Films’ Oprah Winfrey and Kate Forte and based on Taylor Branch’s book trilogy. Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of The Kentucky Cycle who also wrote four episodes of HBO’s 10-part mini The Pacific, boarded to write seven hourlong episodes.