NEW YORK (Reuters) - When director Ava DuVernay was shooting the Martin Luther King Jr. movie "Selma," she was nervous how the story of a 50-year-old battle for black voting rights would feel relevant for 21st century Americans.
She needn't have worried.
"Selma," the first U.S. feature film ever to focus on the iconic civil rights leader, arrives in theaters next week, after nationwide protests over the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers that have put race relations back on top of the political agenda.
DuVernay, an African-American woman - a rarity among Hollywood movie directors - calls the timing jaw-dropping.
"We were here talking about the marches of Selma and I could hear people marching outside," she said of media interviews for the movie in New York last weekend as tens of thousands of demonstrators marched on the city's streets and around the nation.
"For this piece of art to meet this cultural moment is something that was never designed ... and, to me, it's a jaw dropper," DuVernay told Reuters.
The connection to current events could help "Selma" become a serious awards contender. Before the film opens in four cities on Dec. 25, it has already garnered four Golden Globe nominations, including best director for DuVernay.
Eight years in development and with crucial backing from producer Oprah Winfrey, "Selma" focuses on the early months of 1965, when Rev. King and thousands of black and white Americans attempted three times to march peacefully from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital Montgomery in pursuit of the right to vote.
The movie aims to humanize King, examining his strengths and weaknesses, his doubts, controversial strategies and his relationship with his wife, Coretta, and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
"He was a saint and a sinner, he was a man of faith who was sometimes unfaithful. He was sometimes depressed, he was strategic, he was emotional. I wasn't interested in making a film about a statue," DuVernay said.
A SHOUT-OUT FOR FERGUSON
Any doubt about intentional parallels with the current wave of marches, die-ins, student walk-outs and the blocking of U.S. streets over the failure to prosecute white police officers for the deaths of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York are put to rest in the film's final song.
"Resistance is us, That's why Rosa sat on the bus, That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up," raps actor and musician Common in the song "Glory" with R&B singer John Legend that plays as the movie credits roll.
"It's about people taking to the streets, amplifying their voices and saying 'No more'. And that's why it felt so important to give Ferguson a shout-out in the 'Selma' movie," DuVernay said.
British actor David Oyelowo, born to Nigerian parents, plays King in the fulfillment of a life-long ambition. But his journey did not end when the cameras stopped rolling.
Oyelowo, DuVernay and other cast members donned "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts at the film's New York premiere in solidarity with protesters who have chanted the last words of Eric Garner before his death in a choke-hold arrest in New York in July.
Grand juries in New York and Missouri decided not to indict the two officers responsible for the deaths of Garner, and teen Michael Brown, respectively.
Oyelowo said he feared that "while we have this amazing slew of protests, we don't have someone like Martin Luther King articulating what it is we want, what we need....and how we are going to ask for it in a tactical, politically savvy way."
"I really hope and pray that our film in some way shows what was effective in the past and how it can be effective going forward," Oyelowo said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Gunna Dickson)