The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo, center) and others prepare to march for voting rights in Selma (photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures)

Selma gives us our first glimpse of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) while he’s preparing to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given our memories of King as the inspirational leader of the Civil Rights Movement, you might expect him to say something profound and high-minded. Instead, he complains to his wife (Carmen Ejogo) about the formal tie he’s forced to strap on for the occasion.

That’s one way Selma distinguishes itself from the average historical drama it could have been. Rather than turning King and other luminaries of the period into cardboard heroes, it renders them as recognizable human beings.

The other way Selma distinguishes itself is by delving into the arguing and strategizing that went on behind the scenes as King fought to secure voting rights for black Americans. Director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have put together an illuminating account of the events leading up to a massive demonstration he organized to promote those rights: the 1965 march from Selma, Ala., to the capitol building in Montgomery.

Remember Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film about the 16th president’s campaign to make slavery unconstitutional? Selma tackles King’s struggle with the same level of insight and passion.

Just like Spielberg’s Abe Lincoln, DuVernay’s King meets opposition even from those who basically agree with his goals. His chief opponent is President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who resents King’s efforts to involve him in the passage of a Voting Rights Act that he knows will be unpopular in the Jim Crow South. Johnson wants to attack safer targets, like poverty, first.

“It’s a matter of political priority,” LBJ declares. “This voting thing’s just going to have to wait.”

The presidential rejection sends King to Selma, which he hopes will be an effective launching pad for his voting campaign. However, he receives a hostile reception from local leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who’ve spent months working on that very issue. They accuse him of infringing on their territory.

Why does King decide to go to Selma? The answer reveals a contradiction in his insistence on nonviolent protest: Though he counsels his followers to avoid using violence themselves, he knows the value of triggering a violent response from the police—especially when the cameras are rolling. Selma is ideal because its chief

law officer doesn’t understand the political cost of attacking peaceful demonstrators with clubs and fire hoses.

But King also knows he can’t control the anger stirred up by his just cause. Heading for Selma, he displays gallows humor as he tells his wife the city is “as good a place to die as any.” And, indeed, some of his supporters do pay the ultimate price for standing up to racism.

One of the many familiar figures who show up in Selma is FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), who attempts to undermine King by uncovering his marital infidelities. Others include segregationist Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and movement leaders Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo).

All of the historical characters, including King and Johnson, are portrayed in a low-key manner that captures their essence without attempting an out-and-out impersonation. It’s a wise approach that keeps the focus on the issues rather than the actors.

Speaking of the issues, some have charged that Selma misrepresents Johnson’s record on civil rights and his relationship with King. Historians can debate that point, but fact-based films always take a few liberties in order to create drama.

Such criticisms shouldn’t keep anyone from seeing this moving and fascinating re-creation of a struggle that, 50 years later, remains unfinished.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Selma, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Jan. 9) at theaters nationwide.