The subject matter all but guarantees "Selma" to be a powerful experience, and it is. But it also manages to navigate tricky waters that come with a historical drama. It not only tells an important story; it tells that story quite well.

The subject matter all but guarantees “Selma” to be a powerful experience, and it is. But it also manages to navigate tricky waters that come with a historical drama. It not only tells an important story; it tells that story quite well.

In just over two hours, director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb do an effective job of both telling the events of one of the most important moments in the American civil rights movement and establishing the climate in which it took place. The movie has flaws, but its ambition is so lofty, they’re easily forgiven.

In the days after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) turns his attention to establishing voting rights for blacks who have been systematically disenfranchised and intimidated, particularly in the old South.

In meetings with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), it becomes apparent to King that the president is unwilling to make the issue a political priority. King’s campaign moves to Selma, Alabama, and the eventual march to the state capital in Birmingham.

DuVernay does an amazing job of establishing the tensions surrounding the march as well as establishing what was truly at stake, that being the smashing of a means of suppression that remains an issue today. There are some hiccups in the pacing of the film and some less fleshed-out digressions, but the scope makes that almost inevitable.

Oyelowo’s performance is a solemn anchor for the film, as he embodies King’s steady drive as his eyes convey the enormity of weight he was under. It’s near impossible not to get goosebumps as Oyelowo channels King as a master orator. Close your eyes, and you’ll think you’re listening to a recording. In terms of uncanny vocal impersonations, it rivals Stephen Stanton in the Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” (in which, coincidentally, DuVernay appeared).

While “Selma” depicts a piece of history, it feels timely for reasons that should be obvious to anyone. It’s even harder to see the casual violence of racism here than in, say, “12 Years a Slave,” because we realize we are only separated from this by a few decades. As “Selma” so succinctly demonstrates, we’ve both come a long way and have a long way to go.