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Ava DuVernay’s Selma is essential. I wish it wasn’t. In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the Eric Garner strangling, not to mention the baffling failure of two grand juries to indict the police officers responsible, this Martin Luther King movie is both needed and necessary. The sadder fact: it’s probably been needed since 1965, when MLK marched for African Americans’ voting rights, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge between Selma and Montgomery, but only inching, as recent events have proven, slightly towards equality.

However, being important is not the same as being good, and few self-proclaimed “important” movies are ever as worthy as their subjects. This one is. DuVernay has been gifted with David Oyelowo as her star, and he embodies the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so wholly that when he comes to speak publicly on the state of race relations in the U.S., shivers reverberate in the audience, as you’d imagine they did back in 1965. Even more impressive: That DuVernay and Oyelowo don’t have Dr. King’s words to fall back on, with his family’s estate having already sold them to Steven Spielberg for a biopic that is still to eventuate. DuVernay, rewriting Paul Webb’s screenplay – and, even more sacrilegiously, you’d think, MLK’s timeless speeches – has herself created a series of fury- and hope-inspiring declamations, delivered invigoratingly by Oyelowo. Selma’s achievements defy those of regular films.

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Like Lincoln before it, Selma is a process story, focusing on Dr. King’s efforts to end the intimidation of black men and women seeking to register as voters (and receive the rights that entails) in America’s south. Oyelowo plays Martin, away from the pulpit, as a man being carried aloft by a wave as opposed to someone driven by divine purpose. He’s one cog in a machine that includes pastors and rebels. Yet, he’s also the savviest operator; a realist, not a dreamer. He uses the march in Selma – seemingly doomed to fail, thanks to a racist, violent local Sherriff and internal squabbling amongst local civil rights activists – as a threat against President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Secure their constitutional rights, or be responsible for televised violence against peaceful black protesters, he reasons. The man politicked with big stakes, including the lives of his followers, and his own. FBI wiretaps detail MLK’s actions – and locations – and give the feature a sense of propulsion as we head towards our inevitable finale.

Common, Lorraine Toussaint, André Holland, Tessa Thompson and Wendell Pierce populate the film, portraying real figures from the movement, sharing only a handful of lines and still cementing the events with their jointly powerful presence. There are almost too many other great players to mention, often appearing just for a scene or two. Henry G. Sanders provides Selma with its most heart-breaking, human moment, as the grandfather of a slain protester, making conversation with Dr. King at the morgue. Oyelowo’s MLK, finally face to face with the consequences of his campaign, seems at a loss. Sanders made me feel the same.

The picture might be at its best when detailing King’s home life with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo; her second time playing the role following 2011’s Boycott). Martin’s reputation, the sacrifices they’ve made for the family and the truth of his infidelities take a huge toll on their relationship. Selma doesn’t seek to pierce the bubble of our appreciation (little of this will be unfamiliar to viewers), but instead to humanise the struggle and the people enacting it. Imagine how difficult it would be to live up to an ideal. It’s much better to be inspired by, and seek to follow in the footsteps of, another imperfect human.

Selma arrives in Australian cinemas February 12, 2015.