“I’m not a fan of historical drama,” says Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. “I’m a filmmaker who’s made a historical drama, and these are the last kind of movies I watch.”
Perhaps that’s why Selma, which tells the story of the 1965 voting-rights marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, differs from the rushed cradle-to-grave biopics that audiences have come to expect at this time of year. It goes deep, patiently relating the events of just a few weeks. Nor is DuVernay’s film a deification of the sort she calls “supermarket-like, when everything’s so brightly lit.” Her version of King, played by The Butler standout David Oyelowo (above, with co-star Carmen Ejogo), is startlingly human. “We need to get past the idea that anyone was a saint,” she says. “We’re not doing a sainted version of him–or an overcorrected antihero version of him.”
If anyone knows what’s behind an image, it’s a director who spent years shaping the public’s opinion of stars. DuVernay ran movie PR campaigns for years before self-financing her debut drama, 2011’s I Will Follow. One year later, she won Best Director at Sundance with Middle of Nowhere; a year after that, she was tapped for Selma by producers Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey.
Despite the responsibility, she was hardly nervous. After all, her family is from the Alabama county connecting Selma and Montgomery, making a story that has become modern myth all the easier for her to access. “I never approached it as, ‘Oh my God, I’m making a film about Dr. King,’ ” she says. “I just focused on making a film about an ordinary man doing extraordinary things in a place I know very well.”
This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.