In her attempt to define Dr. Martin Luther King (Britain’s outstanding David Oyelowo), director Ava DuVernay wisely takes a cue from Lincoln and offers this biographical fragment instead of a full-fledged hagiography. She focuses on three months in early 1965, after the “I have a dream” speech and the Nobel Prize.

Black protest marchers in Selma, Alabama seeking to exercise their already-granted right to vote were brutally beaten back by bigoted white lawmen. Interestingly, this didn’t happen randomly. More strategist than saint, King chose Selma for the confrontation precisely because the town’s super-cracker sheriff was likely to resort to a little head-busting. He shunned violence, but could appreciate its effectiveness if perpetrated by the other side and caught on TV cameras.

The tactic virtually forced a reluctant President Johnson (a good but miscast Tom Wilkinson) into introducing the Voting Rights Act. So much for the benevolent white savior legacy, Lyndon.

Urgent and suspenseful, complex yet coherent, the movie couldn’t be timelier. While it’s clear how far the U.S. has come in eliminating racism, given the recent events in Ferguson and other places, it’s also clear that the job is not yet complete.  Japanese title: Glory: Asu e no Koshin. (128 min)