As film critics opine about the best movies of 2014 and historians and former aides to President Lyndon Johnson debate his portrayal in the new film “Selma,” something risks becoming lost: the film’s willingness to highlight black voices, ideas, and bodies in their own struggle for freedom. Too often, civil rights films sideline African Americans in their own history. With the exception of the Danny Glover-produced “Freedom Song” (2000) – about grassroots civil rights organizing in a fictional Mississippi town in the early 1960s – Hollywood routinely narrates civil rights as a story of white redemption, such as in “The Help” (2011) and “Mississippi Burning” (1988). In this important and essential sense, “Selma,” out in theaters this week in the Triangle, proves different.

Beyond the film’s protagonist, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the audience may recognize John Lewis and Andrew Young, activists who went on to celebrated political careers. But equally important are the lesser-known civil rights warriors depicted, from James Bevel and Hosea Williams, to the three martyrs of Selma – Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. It is Bevel, more than anyone else in King’s inner circle, who persuades the civil rights leader to fight for voting rights in Selma in 1965. And Williams, alongside Lewis, led two columns of mostly black activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were met by police violence that captivated a national television audience. While the depictions of King and Johnson are certainly relevant, they should be considered alongside the many other folks who made the movement possible.

If there is to be a debate, it should center on the portrayal of black women in the film who, for the most part, are relegated to minor, supporting roles. Coretta Scott King is the most prominent as Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, dutiful despite his human failings. But key behind-the-scenes activists such as Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton show up as little more than props in a film largely about the black men who led the freedom struggle. Missing are the many women field workers that shaped and implemented strategy. This is all the more surprising, given that director Ava DuVernay had been discussed as potentially the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Director category.

In his criticism of “Selma,” former Johnson aide Joseph Califano stated that getting the history right was so important because many people receive their history from movies and television. Agreed, but will they remember the smaller factual truths the most or the larger essential truths of the era? If those of us who care about the past become too bogged down in a filmed portrayal’s details, we risk obscuring the larger points the film gets right – and arguably the most remembered by the audience: Martin Luther King Jr. as a human being, his inner torment and doubts, and the centrality of black decision-making, strategy, and sacrifice to make the Voting Rights Act come to pass. With voting rights under assault and police brutality a continuing issue of debate fifty years later, this last point is what may well be worth remembering.