It is staggering to realise that, while featuring as a supporting or peripheral figure in numerous films, Selma is the first big-screen motion picture focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. Writer-director Ava DuVernay chooses not to attempt a full-blown bio-pic here, but instead focuses on a specific pivotal moment in King’s life and the American Civil Rights movement.

In 1965, King journeyed to Selma, Alabama, where he led a series of non-violent protest marches to help black Americans who were being illegally prevented from registering to vote. They encountered extreme resistance from state police under the command of Senator George Wallace, and King’s appeals for help to President Johnson went unanswered.

Curiously, four British thesps take the lead roles of King (David Oyelowo), his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Wallace (Tim Roth), but all deliver stirring performances in a film of great power and dramatic resonance. Even without the rights to use King’s actual speeches, those scenes in particular retain particular strength in a film that shocks as often as it inspires.

Despite its depictions of events from 50 years ago, Selma remains fiercely relevant for contemporary audiences, both in the US and even here in Hong Kong. While much has been made of the film’s surprising absence from many awards rosters this season, there is no denying the emotional and historical impact of its story, and the cinematic prowess with which it is told. Selma makes for essential and thoroughly rewarding viewing.

This review first appeared in Cathay Pacific’s Discovery Magazine, April 2015