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The March On Washington Film Festival began in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—a watershed moment during the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most powerful political rallies in U.S. history. Now in its fourth year, the festival brings films and documentaries about the era, along with direct witnesses and participants, to animate its history beyond the iconic figures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Washington City Paper recently sat down with festival founder Robert Raben and executive producer Isisara Bey to discuss romanticizing the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement and the significance of lessons from the not-so-distant past for social movements today. For a nation struggling to come to terms with its fractured reflection, this timely festival may soothe frustration by humbling us with how far we’ve come—while reminding us how far we’ve yet to go.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Washington City Paper: Tell me about the genesis of the festival: Where did the idea came from and who was involved in its formation?
Robert Raben: The genesis was, we’re Americans, and we just know as a group of people that come together that our history is largely mistold. So the overarching issue is doing our part to bring as much context, accuracy, and truth to a crucial period of American history. Literally, I accompanied Congressman [John] Lewis of Georgia a few times to Alabama on a yearly pilgrimage that he has participated in, and one year looked around at the number of older—I used to think very old, but now older—people who still lived in Ruleville, Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, Birmingham, and I wondered about your church usher, bus driver, school teacher—what’s [their] story?
That’s the literal genesis of it, that I was interested, curious, eager to hear what we know call battle soldiers, how they would tell the history of this country during the Civil Rights Era. And I came back and was talking to a girlfriend of mine, and she said, well let’s do film. That first year, 2013, we literally put on a show. We put together some documentaries, got some space, and the audience response was overwhelming. The hunger for first-person narratives, unfiltered or less filtered commentary.
WCP: When you say that you wanted to do first-person narratives without commentary, what kind of commentary was accompanying either film or stories before?
RR: Well it’s literal: It’s people who are direct witnesses with a direct story to tell, it’s not just archival or editorialized. What I also mean, and we will struggle with this over the years as we grow, is that it’s as unfiltered as possible. Most history, outside of the family context, in every culture is told by an institution. And in our case, it’s heavily government. Schools and textbooks are government-subsidized. And with government, you get anodyne, you get watered-down, and in some cases you get distorted. So our efforts—and we’re not pure—is to create a platform to bring people.
So we’ve had Emmett Till‘s first cousin, who was in the cabin with him when he was kidnapped, along with Till’s second cousin, with some other people—a filmmaker and an FBI agent—come and tell very raw stories about the dissension within their own families about what went down. We try to create a platform that allows people to be joyous or raw or honoring of their own, in ways that are not influenced by institutional or government leads.
Isisara Bey: So when he says first-person narrative, we’re not necessarily talking about first-person in the film. We actually bring the people who were involved. Another example is last year, we brought Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was the sister of two of the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. And she was there also, she was injured in the basement with them. And to hear her talk about how while she understands people really remembering and honoring them, what about those who survived? She was injured, hospitalized, she lost sight in one eye, and her other sister, who had to go identify the body was completely traumatized for years. And she started to cry, she was still angry about how little had happened for the survivors. So that’s what [Raben] means; it’s not just those iconic figures that are gone. We actually have people who were involved to tell their stories.
WCP: The festival looks to the past to tell these stories and use them as lessons for today. But is there a risk of romanticizing past struggle? How do you gauge how the audience has digested those past stories and lessons?
IB: You know I just did a radio interview yesterday talking about some of this, and what I noted before yesterday, but as I started studying this and working with Robert, is that if you’re under 40, you don’t [know] anything about these people, let alone romanticize them. When people think about the Civil Rights Movement they know Rosa Parks, Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the end. There are a number of things people have no clue about, so it’s more about re-educating folks about the not-that-distant past.
Like Rosa Parks for example: One of our lectures is at the Smithsonian by [Jeanne Theoharis], who’s written a definitive biography called The Rebellious Mrs. Rosa Parks. And there’s a quote in our program from Rosa saying, “I wasn’t old and I wasn’t tired. I was 42 years old and if I was tired of anything, I was tired of giving in.” Now people think she was old, and she just got off of work and she didn’t feel like getting up. In the biography, Parks talks about how, as a child staying up with her father on the porch of their house, and he sat their with a rifle across his lap to make sure the Klan didn’t come. She was raised in struggle.
RR: It’s a great question about romanticization, I was thinking a piece of it—and this is the seminal beauty of art—is that audiences can experience it however they will. That’s how it should be. People get angry, sad, ebullient. But a big piece of what we’re doing is actually romanticizing a different aspect of the era. We’re moving away from iconicism and the notion that history is understood through a superheroic, otherworldly, courageous few.
For us, and the movie Selma tried to do this as well, history is also or even better told through the rank and file, like the nursing home worker in Selma who goes repeatedly on her own to register to vote. And what we found after the first two (festivals) was an outpouring of letters and emails: “My aunt integrated an ice-skating rink in Naperville, IL.” So a big part of this festival is romanticizing what we call the foot soldier.
WCP: Do you encounter any problems telling stories about violence or violent resistance and revolution?
RR: What do you mean by problems? People cheer the Black Panthers movement.
WCP: Well not problems so much but I think there’s a sentiment today that all violent struggle is illegitimate. That any violence that’s a part of a movement then discredits or disqualifies the whole thing.
IB: Not the crowd that comes to these. I haven’t found that.
RR: Well the context is that you’re doing something about state-sponsored violence. I understand exactly what you’re talking about and what the issues are. What Isisara said is that the crowds that come aren’t looking to pick a fight. The other interesting piece is why I think it’s not just important for today but crucial: fundamentally the movement is called a movement because there was ultimately—not withstanding its chaos—coherence to it. It had defined, although porous boundaries. There were civil disobedients, there were violent actors, there were insiders, there were outsiders, youth movements, Puerto Ricans, etc.
And what’s relevant today is that we’re screaming for a strategy. There was a strategy, tactics, there’s a communications regime, and people have palpable tension and dissonance within that, disagreeing on timing, boundaries, but there’s a strong strategy. And now we don’t have a strategy for moving through those systemic injustices we’re seeing. We have all kinds of leaders, and the net has really magnified and mushroomed, but we don’t have a strategy. And when you watch these films and hear about this era, that’s what hits you.
WCP: That’s interesting because many of the social movements globally since 2011 have been expressly non-hierarchical, including Occupy and Black Lives Matter. And BLM’s leaders share responsibility equally and fight against any real identifiable structure or strategy.
IB: This is probably pretty mundane but in January we worked with the Apollo Theatre and New York Public Radio around the commemoration of the King holiday, and during that time and now, I was trying to reach different people from different organizations and couldn’t get them. Not on email, not on the phone, not on Facebook. I say it’s mundane but if there’s no leader then who do we talk to?
RR: What we’re struggling with, macro, is what is the relationship between brand and a movement? What you have right now is a brand; Occupy is a brand, BLM is a brand. The mobilization under the rubric of that brand is exponentially more complicated than a hierarchy.
WCP: What does “brand” mean?
RR: It’s a shared understanding of a set of very high-end values. The name speaks for itself on this one: Black Lives Matter. Making the clear case that for most of our existence, they’ve been devalued. It’s an assertion. Is it any different than the Black Power movement? Probably not. But what you now have is Twitter, and instant broadcasting. But this is what the Black Power movement was too, this is what the Young Lords movement was—anyways, you learn all this. And this is not ancient history, this is 50 years ago. So for us, in creating this festival, we don’t have to grope to find a connection to today, it is today. And the question for young people is: we’ve got a brand, we’ve got a shared understanding of a problem, we’ve got an organizing principle—what are the asks?
WCP: I want to go back to what we were talking about before, about struggle then and now, because there’s a sentiment now that nothing has changed.
IB: Well I feel one area it hasn’t changed is that the police will bust your head the same way as they did 100 years ago. It’s just that now you get more videos about it. I met two young people last fall at a film fundraiser. They’re doing a film on Ferguson. One of them had a shirt on that said “Not Your Mama’s Civil Rights Movement”. And that really pained me because I think that there’s this feeling that the struggle is more real now than it was then, and it’s more dangerous now than it was then, and the stakes are higher now than they were then.
I was with this young man at the radio interview and he said, “If they’d done that to me, I’d have such and such… I would have been the one…” And I said, “You’re thinking like you have the same kind of attitude now as people then, and you’re facing the same kind of pressure now.” It was different. If you opened your mouth like that, then somebody in your family could have been killed, your house could have been burned down, you would have put out of your job, like [Fannie Lou] Hamer.
WCP: In the same way that some of the rhetoric right now is that things haven’t changed, we just have more media access and visibility.
IB: Of course things have changed. My parents are from another country and my dad says that when he came here [to] Virginia, he would do things like get on the bus and sit in the white part, and if people said anything he acted like he couldn’t speak English. We don’t have to sit on the back of the bus. Things have changed. Maybe in some ways they haven’t, but I think it’s so defeatist to feel like nothing’s any better, when clearly they are.
WCP: Do you think audiences under 40 are able to pick up on that, that things have changed, or is there still that disconnect?
IB: I think they learn things about the past they felt were so long ago but wasn’t really, and give them the backstory to things that are happening now that they did not know about. That’s the part that strikes me about the people who come to the festival, and I’m still getting those stories now.
The March on Washington Film Festival runs until July 23 at various venues throughout D.C. Check out the schedule and buy tickets here.