We've been writing about Ava DuVernay's fantastic drama “Selma” since it first debuted at the AFI Film Festival on Nov. 11. While many have been able to catch the Best Picture player in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other select cities since Christmas, the rest of the nation will finally get their chance to experience it on Friday. Paramount Pictures has provided HitFix with an exclusive clip which comes at a pivotal moment in the film.
Early on audiences are introduced to three residents of the city, Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), his daughter Viola Jackson (Charity Jordan) and his grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield). They, like many African-American residents of the area, were peacefully protesting the fact that a civil rights leader was being held in county jail when they were attacked by police officers. Lee and his family sought refuge in a local restaurant when police found them and tragedy struck. In the embedded clip, Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) meets Lee at the mortuary to console him.
Speaking to Sanders this weekend, he says he credits Oyelowo for helping pull off the emotional moment.
He notes, “I mean it's kind of unexpected. Why would Dr. King come see these just regular people? Why would he be so interested in that? And with David it was just so wonderful and easy because he was there in the scene and he gives you so much and you just have to trust that the work pays off.”
Sanders isn't a household name, but he has his own place in cinema history. A veteran actor and director he starred in the classic American indie “Killer of Sheep.” The 1977 Charles Burnett drama was one of the first 50 films on the Library of Congress' National Film Registry and, recently, Steven Soderbergh helped raised funds to make sure a restored print would be available for future generations. The 72-year-old has also had notable roles in films such as “Bull Durham” and “Rocky Balboa” and was a regular on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”
Given his 40-plus years in the business, I asked him what stood out about working with DuVernay and he immediately replied, “She knew what she wanted. That's one of the things you can really tell the brilliance of a director when they've thought this thing through and they know the characters. They're comfortable, which makes you comfortable, as opposed to a director that doesn't quite know what he wants but he knows it if you give it to him. So if you're not clear about what [they] want then you're a little confused and you just try to find something to bring. I mean, she's amazing in that sense.”
He also credits his Oyelowo with some good advice about playing Lee.
“We had talked about my age and that I didn't look as old as 82 years old,” Sanders recalls. “We were thinking about making him in his '70s. And David said that he thought that was a bad idea because you would feel more sympathy for an 82-year-old than you would a 72-year-old going through the same thing. And I thought, 'Wow, what a brilliant idea.' That was really good and it helped me a lot.”
While he only has a supporting role in a very large ensemble, it's clear that the film has a special place in Sanders' heart.
“I've seen it five times and every time the reaction is the same,” Sanders says. “I still walk out emotional about what I've seen and just kind of thoughts of what people had gone through, especially Dr. King's last speech. It still gives me chills every time I hear it.”
You can watch Sanders' work in the embedded clip at the top of this post.
“Selma” opens nationwide on Friday.