TIME Behind the Photos

On the Set of Selma with James Nachtwey

Paramount Pictures commissioned photojournalist James Nachtwey

There were moments when I felt I had traveled back in time. The small town of Selma, Alabama looked much the same as it must have looked back in the day when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march to the state capital demanding equal rights under the law for African Americans. The extras playing the marchers were, for the most part, local people, some of whom had participated in the real march. Visually, there was a sense of authenticity, but even more importantly, many of the emotions that fueled the historical event were still very much alive. In reenacting history, the actors were expressing their true feelings about living in the present.

David Oyelowo looked so much like Dr. King I sometimes felt as if I was photographing the man himself. During the filming of Dr. King’s speech in front of the State House in Montgomery, the actor’s words and mannerisms seemed so real there was an electric charge in the air. The response from the crowd of marchers was so genuine it was as if they were hearing the words for the first time, and indeed, the message is as relevant today as it was then.

In photographing scenes from the film I took the point of view I have in my normal work of documenting contemporary history as it happens. There was a tremendous amount of movie-making activity swirling around at all times, with camera crew and lighting technicians, production assistants, set dressers, costume and make-up people performing all the tasks that have to be accomplished to create a convincing world of make-believe. But in very small windows of time existed moments of reality, and I wandered through the set watching and waiting for those moments to materialize. An accumulation of those brief fragments of time created a meta-reality that became a mental point of departure, and I stepped back into history as if in a time machine.

Images from the American Civil Rights Movement had motivated me to become a documentary photographer in the first place, and the values, ideals and working principles of the Movement have continued to inspire me throughout my career.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s deputy director of photography.

TIME Culture

How ‘Selma’ Reclaims Hollywood’s Sanitized Versions of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most successful films on the civil rights era, and King's legacy, have been conflated with a simple story of American racial progress

Ava DuVernay, the director of the highly lauded film Selma, says that “in the 50 years since Dr. King’s death, there has never been a feature film casting him as a protagonist. That’s a jaw dropper.” This deficit is not because of a lack of interest. At the beginning of 2011, there were rumored to be no fewer than five King-related projects in Hollywood; at the end of that year, due to pulled funding or the King family’s objections, only Selma and an HBO miniseries remained.

In this context, Selma, in limited release Christmas Day and wide release January 9, is not only remarkable for its rich, nuanced, and–thanks to British actor David Oyelowo–deeply textured portrayal of King, but simply for its successful arrival on the big screen at all. To make a film on King turns out to be as complicated and controversial as the man himself.

Ironically, the most obvious reason for this deficit on the big screen has been King’s children and good friend and fellow Civil Rights activist Andrew Young. Young’s quite public statements about historical inaccuracies might have impacted the viability of King movies, like Paul Greengrass’ Memphis—about King’s assassination and final days—which got its funding pulled two months before filming after Young reportedly voiced his concerns to Universal executives. On the other hand, Selma has received tacit approval from some of King’s children, and Young was spotted on set. But they still did not grant DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb permission to use King’s actual words. As a result, all of his key speeches and dialogues in the film were written in a style inspired by King.

To date, the King estate has granted the actual rights to King’s life story exclusively to Dreamworks, for a film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. And even that film has been marred in drama: two of King’s three children, Bernice and Martin, originally threatened legal action against their brother, Dexter, because they had neither been consulted on the deal nor given their approval.

And just last January, its director, Oliver Stone, tweeted that he would not write or direct the biopic because he wanted to deal with “issues of adultery, conflicts within the movement, and King’s spiritual transformation into a higher, more radical being.” He went on to say his King ran up against the image of a “saint” that the estate wanted.

Such desires to sanitize King are not his family’s and close friends’ alone. In our collective memory of King, most Americans only know his 1963 “I Have Dream” speech that celebrates racial equality, while his later radicalism against a rising American military state in Vietnam and increasing class inequality are all but footnoted or forgotten. We remember him as a monument, not a man, unblemished, frozen in time, and as America’s ultimate racial reconciler who now lives on the National Mall.

King, as Michael Eric Dyson, author of I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr., wrote to me in an email, “is a supreme paradox: on the one hand, he is the ultimate symbol of our racial progress, and on the other hand, the most undeniable reminder of the bloody price we paid for that progress. Thus he is at once soothing and subversive, both reassuring and troubling.” In other words, for a biopic to capture successfully the power of King’s dream, it would also have to recognize the tragedy of his death, a visceral and violent reminder that America’s racial crisis is ongoing and that the dreams of the civil rights movement are still unfulfilled.

This is not to say that filmmakers have not tried. Several award-winning documentaries, most notably King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis and PBS’ Eyes on the Prize and Citizen King, have consistently provided us with King’s image and words within the tumultuous context of his time. And in 1978, Paul Winfield played King in Abby Mann’s six-hour mini-series King on NBC. Winfield, Cicely Tyson who played Coretta, and Ossie Davis as King’s father all earned Emmy nominations for their roles. Its conspiratorial ending, on the other hand, courted so much controversy that it prompted an inconclusive congressional investigation of King’s murder.

Between then and now, King’s legacy not only increasingly became conflated with a simple story of American racial progress, but Hollywood’s most successful films on the civil rights era (with the important exception of Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X)—Mississippi Burning (1988), The Long Walk Home (1989), and most recently The Help (2011)—all told a story of resisting segregation through the more conciliatory experience of interracial friendships or white heroes.

Contrastingly, DuVernay’s Selma not only redirects our attention to the myriad of African Americans – organizers, students, and everyday citizens – who pushed the demands of the Civil Rights movement, but in the process, rescues King from the tomb of American memory. Through her eyes, and now ours, King emerges as a lover and leader, preacher and philanderer, a genius strategist and a vulnerable citizen. Through the film, he leans on others, his wife, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, young activist John Lewis, even Malcolm X, as they all lean on him.

In this way, Selma is the big screen bookend to HBO’s 2001 television movie Boycott, based on King’s first major campaign, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to desegregate public transportation. Directed by Clark Johnson, Boycott starred Jeffrey Wright and Carmen Ejogo as a Coretta (a role that she brilliantly reprises in Selma), but showcased King, as a young leader, learning from and organizing with veteran activists like Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, and of course, Rosa Parks.

Perhaps, the best movies about King are not based solely on him. Rather, they tell the history of the civil rights movement as it was: ideologically conflicted, multifaceted, and marked by big losses and mini-victories. And through such renderings of the past, we discover a new King who was both a man and an engine of a movement. He is more radical, more complex, and perhaps more prophetic. And even though this King might not be the hero that we thought we knew, he is the one that our time desperately needs.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a book on the civil rights artist, Nina Simone. She is the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based non-profit that uses art to end violence against girls and women.

TIME movies

The Japanese Studio That Launched the Franchise Is Making a New Godzilla Movie

Godzilla Eats A Commuter Train
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) Toho/Embassy Pictures/Getty Images

“The time has come for Japan to make a film that will not lose to Hollywood”

Director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot was a box office rainmaker, earning $525 million worldwide. But Godzilla was born in Japan, and the Japanese studio that produced the first Godzilla movie in 1954 wants back in on the lucrative franchise. According to Variety, the studio, Toho, plans to begin filming next summer and release the film in 2016, a few years ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The most recent of Toho’s 28 Godzilla movies, out in 2004, was to be the last, largely thanks to disappointing revenues. But the overwhelming success of this year’s American version along with advances in computer graphics, says Toho producer Taichi Ueda, inspired the studio to get back in the reptilian monster game.

Looking to compete with the U.S. and develop a character that “will represent Japan and be loved around the world,” Toho is convening a committee of directors and studio executives, the Godzilla Strategic Conference, or Godzi-Con for short. There is still no word on a director or casting. But a competitive spirit will surely fuel the producers as the film takes shape — Edwards’ Godzilla 2 is slated for release in 2018.

TIME movies

‘Walter Mitty’ and the LIFE Magazine Covers That Never Were

Many of the classic LIFE magazine covers on display in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' were, in fact, never LIFE covers at all.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” James Thurber’s classic 1939 short story, is a tribute to the sometimes unsettling power of the human imagination. It’s also very, very funny and, alongside a number of other Thurber gems — “The Catbird Seat,” “The Night the Bed Fell,” “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” — remains an indispensable example of the uniquely American, mid-20th-century humor that found its highest expression in the pages of the New Yorker.

The most recent movie adaptation of the Mitty story stars Ben Stiller in the titular role as the archetypal nebbish who retreats into an intensely vivid fantasy world in times of stress. (The first film version of Mitty, starring Danny Kaye, was released in 1947.) In this rendition of the tale, Stiller plays a photo editor at LIFE magazine — still publishing, thanks to the magic of the movies, four decades after it shuttered in 1972 — and much of the film is set in the meticulously recreated offices of the storied weekly. In those offices, meanwhile, hang poster-sized versions of LIFE magazine covers through the years.

The covers are stirring, iconic — and, for the most part, they’re fake.

Or rather, the majority of the LIFE covers one sees in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were never covers at all. The pictures on the covers in this gallery, for example — the launch of Apollo 11; Jayne Mansfield luxuriating in a swimming pool; a theater audience watching the first-ever 3-D feature-length film — are, indisputably, classic LIFE images. But none of them ever graced the cover of LIFE magazine.

“When we were selecting photos for the LIFE covers in Walter Mitty,” says Jeff Mann, the production designer on the film, “we focused on pictures that would serve the story we were telling, but that would also capture the diversity of what LIFE covered in its prime. We worked really, really hard to select photos that were novel, naïve — in the best possible way — and that featured significant twentieth-century people, places and events.”

In the end, Mann says, he and his team — and Stiller, who is a photography aficionado — felt that the photos they chose to use as covers, from the literally millions of pictures in LIFE’s archive, had to somehow “convey the influence of LIFE magazine, while at the same time helping to move our story along. It was a fabulous problem, and one we had a lot of fun working to solve.”

Here, then, are a number of LIFE covers that never were — including several that, in light of how wonderful they look, perhaps should have been covers, after all.

[See all of LIFE’s galleries]

[Buy the book, 75 Years: The Very Best of LIFE]

TIME movies

Watch Jennifer Aniston Get Unglamorous in the Trailer for Cake

“Do you want to get better, really?”

The first thing people talk about when they talk about Jennifer Aniston’s role in Cake is her ugliness — or at least, her lack of characteristic prettiness. Playing a woman who suffers from chronic pain and an addiction to the painkillers meant to numb it, her face is scarred and shiny, her gait pained and graceless. For this reason, many are calling this Aniston’s Monster, the film for which Charlize Theron’s portrayal of a very un-made-up serial killer earned her an Oscar.

But the role is noteworthy for more than just a lack of lipstick. To prepare to play Claire, Aniston spent six weeks talking to people who suffer from chronic pain, seeking not only to understand the emotional hardship the condition presents, but also the movement of a person for whom movement brings about great pain. Aniston told an audience that she accepted the role without hesitation. “I thought the character was such a beautiful, complex, layered, tortured character,” she said. “I just tapped into something with Claire I felt instantly connected to.

Cake, which was received warmly at the Toronto International Film Festival, co-stars Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Adriana Barraza, Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy. It will be released for a limited, one-week pre-Oscar run in December, and for wide release in January.

TIME movies

Watch the First Peanuts Movie Trailer

Good grief!

Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids and producer of the highly anticipated Peanuts 3-D movie, just learned that he can “never trust a beagle.”

While 20th Century Fox initially pegged the 2015 film’s first trailer to premiere on Thanksgiving, it “leaked” 10 days early.

Rats!

TIME movies

This (Pant, Pant) Is the New 50 Shades of Grey Trailer

Safe for work!

A new two-and-a-half minute trailer for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s much-anticipated film adaptation of E.L. James’ bestseller, 50 Shades of Grey, is out.

There’s no full frontal nudity in this preview but viewers do get a peek into of the Red Room of Pain and a glimpse into the relationship between Christan (played by Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), the Wrap reports.

Want more? You’ll have to wait until the film’s release on Valentines Day 2015.

[The Wrap]

TIME movies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Will Play Edward Snowden in New Movie

"White Bird In A Blizzard" - Los Angeles Premiere
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt attends the premiere of "White Bird in a Blizzard" at ArcLight Hollywood on October 21, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Backers confirm the casting choice

Producers confirmed Monday that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Edward Snowden in the Oliver Stone movie set to start shooting in Munich in January.

The casting choice has been rumored since September, but was finally confirmed today, just two months before the film is set to begin filming, the Guardian reports.

Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay based on two books about Snowden and NSA surveillance (The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena) and reportedly sought out independent production companies Open Road and Endgame in order to protect the production from political pressures.

TIME movies

Jamie Foxx and Benicio del Toro to Star in Harmony Korine’s Gangster Movie

Jamie Foxx and Benicio Del Toro Getty Images (2)

No word on whether, like Spring Breakers, it will also include a Britney Spears singalong

Variety reports that Jamie Foxx and Benicio del Toro will co-star in an “ensemble gangster drama” written and directed by Harmony Korine. The Trap, as it is currently titled, is also billed as a revenge movie, but additional plot details have yet to surface.

In an interview with Bullett in September, Korine said he had finished writing the script and selected Miami as a filming location (“Just the way the sky looks,” he explained). “It’s going to be my most ambitious film,” he offered, “and I’m really just going to go for it. It’s some next level shit.” This says a lot, coming from the filmmaker who gave us Spring Breakers, which is already pretty next-level.

Foxx, meanwhile, will grace the silver screen later this month in Horrible Bosses 2 and in December as Daddy Warbucks reincarnate Will Stacks in the remake of Annie. For his part, Del Toro plays attorney Sauncho Smilax in Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, also premiering in December.

Korine plans to begin filming The Trap in early 2015.

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