There’s a lot to admire and unsettle in this story of peaceful protest in the face of extreme violence and political sabotage.

The focus of Ava DuVernay’s impressive film is Martin Luther King’s spirited three-month campaign to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans, culminating in an epic march across Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

British actor David Oyelowo stars as Dr King as he plots the march against the express wishes of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), in the full knowledge that the first attempts would be met by police brutality. Six hundred marchers were driven back by teargas and many were severely beaten on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 5th March 1965, in shocking scenes that made national and world newsreels.

A second march four days later, in which black protesters were joined by white religious leaders, was abandoned in the face of a repeat line of state troopers, and later the same evening Boston minister James Reeb was fatally bludgeoned by white segregationists. The peaceful protest only gained impetus and on 21 March 4,000 strode out from Selma, to be joined by over 20,000 more on a five-day march to the state capitol, where King delivered a landmark speech. DuVernay recreates these events unerringly, spliced with actual footage from the march, and the violence of the police and state-galvanised supremacists is utterly shocking.

Oprah Winfrey packs a punch as inspirational activist Annie Lee Cooper.

We also get to see a private side to King. His admirable determination borders on bloody-mindedness, and his inspirational speeches and actions are only lightly undercut by hints about his voracious womanizing and a just-too-saintly earnestness. More unsettling are the constant wiretapping and dirt-digging of the FBI as they set out to discredit King, and the stony venom of Alabama’s state governor George Wallace (superbly played by Tim Roth).

Among the remaining cast, Carmen Ejogo makes for an alluring and durable Coretta Scott King, and co-producer Oprah Winfrey packs a punch as inspirational activist Annie Lee Cooper.

Concentrating on a small but pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Selma is a compelling reminder of both the jubilant triumphs of principled protest and the dangers of rabble-rousing.

Selma is on general release from Friday 6 February

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