The March on Washington Film Festival is marking 60 years since the historic D.C. march where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.
The festival returns to the District on Sunday, Sept. 24 to Oct. 1.
It all started around a decade ago in a church across from the Capitol.
“We screened ‘4 Little Girls,’ Spike Lee’s documentary, and we were overwhelmed with joy at the audience turnout,” founder Robert Raben told WTOP. “We literally had to turn people away because of the hunger and the thirst to learn about our history.”
But today, “we have capacity crowds at most events. … People all over the world are seeing the films.”
While the festival turns another year older, the mission remains the same as it’s always been.
“The mission is about telling the untold and the mistold stories of the Civil Rights Movement,” executive director Joanne Irby told WTOP. “The thing that’s interesting about the festival is that we use the arts to engage people in those stories, so it’s certainly film, but it’s also the visual arts, it’s performing arts, so we engage a wide range of audiences into stories that we think we knew, as well as stories that no one knew in terms of the movement.”
The festival unofficially kicks off Sunday, Sept. 24, with a sneak peek at Jon-Sesrie Goff’s “After Sherman,” which examines South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee community shown prior in Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (1991).
“Direct descendants of West African enslaved people here in the states have an island community in South Carolina,” Irby said. “They’re challenged now with gentrification issues, systemic racism issues, climate change. … Immediately after the screening we’re having what we’re calling an ‘afternoon soiree’ where there will be a DJ, dancing, conversations about the Gullah community, and there will be a signature cocktail for the festival.”
After taking a day off on Monday, the official opening night is Tuesday, Sept. 26, with a kickoff screening of “Silver Dollar Road” directed by Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”) in partnership with Amazon Prime Video.
“This is certainly a film about gentrification that will be happening in partnership with the Motion Picture Association,” Irby said. “At the same time, we have another event happening at the Jewish Community Center. We’re screening the first produced film from the March on Washington Film Festival Studios. It’s called ‘One Struggle,’ and it really does a nice deep dive into the complexities of the Black community and Jewish community.”
Wednesday, Sept. 27, brings the awards gala at Union Market to present the John Lewis Lifetime Legacy Award.
“This year, the recipient of the award will be Sen. Raphael Warnock [of Georgia],” Raben said. “We’ll also have a presentation of an award to Rev. [Al] Sharpton for his years of leadership, but this is the traditional time that people come together for an elegant and inspiring evening held at Union Market to honor the triumphs and the history of the Civil Rights Movement with the people who are currently doing that work.”
Thursday, Sept. 28, brings “Dinner and a Movie Under the Stars” with an outdoor presentation at Union Market with a screening of the documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything” directed by Lisa Cortés.
“It really does a great exploration of the roots of rock ‘n roll in this country and looks at some of the challenges that [Little Richard] faced both as a Black man but also a queer man performing in the 1950s, so it’s really fascinating,” Irby said. “We will have another March on Washington Film Festival signature cocktail as well, so people are welcome to come out, bring your lawn chairs, bring your family and hang out outside for the screening.”
Friday, Sept. 29, returns to Union Market as artist and activist Michelle Browder will receive the Vivian Malone Courage Award presented by former Attorney General Eric Holder and Dr. Sharon Malone, Vivian’s sister.
“[Vivian] is the young woman who integrated the University of Alabama,” Raben said. “Many people have strong memories of [Gov.] George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door; the woman he is blocking is Vivian. … This year, the recipient is artist Michelle Browder from Montgomery, Alabama, who has drawn attention to a tragic experience of enslaved women who were operated upon involuntarily so that America could invent gynecology.”
Closing night is Saturday, Sept. 30, with “Pulpits, Protests and Power” at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
“It is an examination of the role of the Black church in the Civil Rights Movement,” Irby said. “It will be discussions, it will be performances, including gospel legend Yolanda Adams, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Choir, so it will really be the crescendo night of the festival.”
It all wraps with a bonus day on Sunday, Oct. 1, with “Space Race” also directed by Lisa Cortés at the Eaton Hotel.
“It’s about the journey and challenges of Black astronauts and scientists as they crossed that final frontier through NASA,” Irby said. “It’s a really interesting look at the path they walked and the challenges they experienced.”
WTOP fittingly conducted the interview amid the symbolic construction crews currently renovating the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the iconic march in 1963.
“For us to be here on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where we just acknowledged the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom … is really significant for us,” Irby said. “There’s construction going on, there’s noise, it’s busy, but it’s a great analogy because there’s construction, there’s work to be done in our country.”