Tanya Valette presents DR shorts at IU Cinema

Earlier this semester the BFC/A presented “Roots/Routes: Contemporary Caribbean Cinema” at the IU Cinema. This weekend Bloomington audiences will have another opportunity to appreciate the dynamism of filmmaking in the region with Saturday’s Dominican short film program during the Latino Film Festival and Conference. Tanya Valette, currently the artistic director and head of programming at the IBAFF International Film Festival in Murcia, Spain, curated the program. As one of the first generation of students at Cuba’s renowned International School of Cinema and Television in San Antonio de los Baños (EICTV)–who later became the school’s seventh director–Valette has over two decades of experience making and promoting films in and of the Caribbean. The BFC/A recently had the opportunity to interview her over email. The following is an condensed version of the interview, edited for clarity.

Tanya Valette (Photo: Nicolás Ordóñez Carrillo)

Tanya Valette (Photo: Nicolás Ordóñez Carrillo)

BFC/A: Increasingly the Dominican Republic is making itself known internationally in the realm of filmmaking.  Could you tell us about the burgeoning Dominican film scene?  And how do you see your role with DGCINE (Dirección General de Cine República Dominicana, the Dominican Republic’s film commission)?

Tanya Valette: Since a bit more than a decade, the Dominican Republic has been taking steps towards the consolidation of a national cinema, which has a lot to do with the fact that many filmmakers are being trained outside and inside the country. This has made it possible for movies to be put together in a much better way, creatively and technically speaking, with stories that are built better and anchored deeper in our reality.

The Dominican public supports local production, which has given confidence to private investors. The other important factor in this development is the political will, from the presidency of the country, to create DGCINE and the establishment of Law 108-10, which promotes cinematic activities in the Dominican Republic. This law was first put into practice two years ago and has made possible the organization of an independent national industry. One of the big benefits brought by the law is funding dedicated to stimulate local projects, in the various steps of their production. Thus we can develop these projects, mentor filmmakers and later have the ability to enter coproduction markets, etc.

My role as an advisor at DGCINE is intended to leverage my academic experience and training in the audiovisual field, as well as my international contacts, especially from Europe.

BFC/A: You have a background as a film director as well as a producer.  How did you get started in filmmaking?

TV: My beginnings in this profession originated in cinephilia, which was transmitted by my mom, who took my brother and me by the hand to go the movie theaters in our neighborhood. While I was a student at university, studying cinema was practically an impossible dream, until the International School of Cinema and Television appeared in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. I am part of its first generation of students.

That complete immersion in movies, with the best professors from the region, Europe, and even the USA (Francis Ford Coppola was one of them), trained me in such a comprehensive way for the profession that I felt the need to pass on what I had learned. That’s the reason why I’ve been involved in training and education since then.

BFC/A: This is a follow-up question…do you see a difference in the temperament (and/or training) needed to pursue the production side of filmmaking — raising money, handling logistics, etc — and the artistic side?  Or are these two intertwined?  What is your approach to making films?

TV: Every day it becomes more necessary that filmmakers get involved in the development process of their projects, just as it is impossible to be considered a good producer when one is not creative. To build a project, to make it into a good movie and make it so it’s seen at film festivals all around the world and has a good distribution, requires a group effort between director and producer. This year, IU’s Latino Film Festival will host Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, the directors and producers of Jean Gentil and other feature films. [Jean Gentil (2010) will screen at the IU Cinema on Saturday, April 5 at 4:30 p.m. Guzmán and Cárdenas are scheduled to answer questions after the film. They will also participate in a panel on migrations within Dominican filmmaking on Saturday, April 5 at 9:30 a.m.]

This is a model I defend and that I try to stimulate whenever I have the chance. It is important to remember that we are talking about art films. There is a will to be successful in reaching a large audience. This can accomplished within the framework of an industry that is respectful of each movie as a unique process that will entail its own production strategies.

BFC/A: The theme of this year’s Latino Film Festival and Conference is “Transnational Lives.”  You also serve as an analyst for the Ibermedia Program. What can you tell us about Ibermedia and its transnational approach to coproduction to connect Europe with Latin America and the Caribbean.  Does this transnational approach also apply to existing/possible distribution models?

TV: The Ibermedia Program is part of an agreement between the member countries of the Ibero-American Summit of Heads of the State. Their main purpose is to encourage the coproduction between countries in the region, thus stimulating the development of national film industries, and creating funding and an audiovisual space that would preserve cultural specificities of each country. For that matter, it wouldn’t be considered a transnational concept, since it doesn’t try to globalize stories, forms, or ways of storytelling. It isn’t trying to impose a model.

Distribution and exhibition are the big issues that need to be solved. We can never stop looking for new alternatives so that our movies can reach viewers from all around the world – and this includes audiences in our own countries.

[For more on the Ibermedia Program, see Tamara L. Falicov's comprehensive essay here.]

BFC/A: You’ve curated a great lineup of shorts that will screen at the festival.  How did you come up with this program?  And could you tell us about your other experiences in film programming?

TV: When the festival proposed that I curate a series, I saw it as a challenge. I had to build a program of Dominican short films that lasted at most an hour and a half. I wanted to curate an exhibition that would be both representative and of quality. I had to articulate both of these coherently, knowing that it would be impossible not to end up leaving some important works aside. The history of our national cinema started with a short film, in the 1960′s. Production since then has been constant, even though we cannot talk of significant numbers. Most of the short films in the program were made by students who graduated from film schools in our country and abroad. Some of them already have an important body of work, as in the case of Leticia Tonos. [Tonos' 2010 feature debut, La hija natural / Love Child, was part of the Roots/Routes series. Her most recent feature, Cristo Rey (2013), premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.] We’ll see her graduation project, the short film, Ysrael, which is an adaptation of Junot Díaz’s short story of the same name.

My experience as a programmer has been very rewarding and has widened my perspectives, by incorporating many diverse ways to make cinema. I am always looking for a vision, a way to take up a stance before what’s been shown, a personal writing, the author’s risk and honesty. Something that moves me without often knowing why.

BFC/A: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

TV: It’ll be a pleasure to discover this festival and the reactions of the audience before our cinema. I am very grateful for the opportunity that has been given to us.

The Dominican shorts program screens this Saturday, April 5 at 10:30 a.m. at the IU Cinema. You can find more information about the 2014 Latino Film Festival and Conference here and here.

~Nzingha Kendall

Damn the Man, Save the Rex! – Akosua Adoma Owusu Reinvigorates Ghanaian Cinema Culture


Photo: Design 233/Obibini Pictures

Akosua Adoma Owusu is an award-winning filmmaker whose films have shown all over the world.  Earlier this year her film Kwaku Ananse won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film.  She recently changed her home base from suburban DC to Accra, and in her latest project, she’s aiming to reinvigorate film-going culture in Ghana’s capital city.

Last month Owusu launched “Damn the Man, Save the Rex!” — a Kickstarter campaign to revive one of Ghana’s historic cinemas.  The campaign ends later this week on November 15, and she’s raised over two-thirds of her $8000 goal.  The BFC/A’s Nzingha Kendall interviewed her about the impetus for the project, the history of the Rex and her vision for the space.

BFC/A: One of the goals of your “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” project is to add to the vitality of the arts scene in Accra by providing a multifaceted space to showcase art and music in addition to film.  Can you tell us why you decided to launch this venture at the Rex in particular?

Akosua Adoma Owusu: Absolutely! Well, my motivation for launching the Save the Rex campaign came from how I could see this lack of support for African filmmakers, and even more, a lack of spaces for African filmmakers to exhibit and showcase their work.  Moving back to Ghana after the AMAAs [African Movie Academy Awards], I struggled to secure a venue that would premiere a short film because the film didn’t even fit the mold of any film industry structure – abroad or in Ghana.


Photo: Design 233/Obibini Pictures

Also, Ghana has lots of historic cultural institutions that have been left abandoned or have been sold for redevelopment and yet it is not really a cinema-going culture.  These spaces were originally used by local Ghanaian cultural producers and are now left unattended so they are no longer considered fascinating to people in the context of contemporary Ghanaian community.  I want to revive the Rex to give the local Ghanaian creative community and my peers opportunities to be cultural producers in a culture where memory and cultural heritage is often discarded in order to compete in a globalized world.

BFC/A: A follow up question: What role did the Rex play in Ghanaian cinema-going culture?  And why are other historic cinemas in Ghana endangered today?

Owusu: To say it simply, the Rex, among other cinema houses, was built to promote and exhibit Hollywood and foreign movies for local Ghanaian audiences.  With the fast growing and successful video film industry, there was no longer a need for a cinema-going culture. Films could go straight to DVD and directly profit the filmmakers themselves, which is very similar to the Nigerian film industry.  Many private investors in these cinema houses were more concerned about making profit from African ticket sales or promoting foreign cultures, that the cinema houses were no longer profitable.  Then other models developed, like showing locally produced films in the cinema houses.  This model was not profitable either since every household had access to a television, and people prefer to watch films at home, or on a computer or even a phone. How can these cinema houses make money, especially when theaters are also dying abroad?

I think it is time we turn the cinema house into a place where local artists can show their work for the sake of having their work seen by a local audience, which in turn will stimulate cultural production and cultural productivity.  I believe if local Africans can have opportunities to be seen by the local community, they can eventually get noticed by an international one that often rejects their voice.  In Ghana, we live in a culture where the local community would rather see more movies made from our own voice from our own perspective.  That said, I feel it is time we consider investing more in spaces where Africans can have freedom to be cultural producers and stimulate cultural production of our own culture in our own cultural spaces.

BFC/A: On your Kickstarter trailer, you mention that you’ve encountered many situations where people discuss ideal and exciting projects, but that in the end these projects rarely make it past the theoretical stage.  How is it that you’re able to take your ideas and make them reality?

Owusu: Well, I think my process of taking ideas and turning them into reality is similar to my process of making films – they just come together organically.  I really don’t have the time and energy to wait for funding to pull my films together.   I just have to do it.  I cannot wait for funding to get my films made.  I usually make my films with very little and with what already exists out there.  Kwaku Ananse, to date, has been my most expensive film and it was a co-production of 3 countries that came together to make my vision become a reality.  So, I feel that if it takes 3 countries to make my short film, and I am of 2 cultures, it is my duty as an African filmmaker of the diaspora who makes work in Africa, with Africans and foreigners, to collaborate and be of service to my creative community.

BFC/A: Who are some of the Ghanaian artists you plan to showcase at the Rex?  Or if perhaps you don’t want to let the cat out of the bag quite yet, who are some young Ghanaian artists whose work we should keep an out out for?

Owusu: Oh Yes!  Absolutely!  Many of the artists I plan on showcasing at the Rex are my great friends and this is no secret so I’d love to share who I am collaborating with and their involvement in the Save the Rex project.  One artist is my sistren, Nana Offoryiatta-Ayim, a cultural historian, curator and filmmaker.  I’m a filmmaker and curating cultural programs isn’t my forte.  However, I love how Nana has such a great great eye when it comes to spotting great local talent.

There are sculptors Nana Anoff and Mahama Ibrahim.  There is filmmaker Anita Afonu, who made a documentary, Perished Diamonds, about our dying cinema houses,  there is performance artist Serge who comes to mind….There is Wanlov the Kubolor and M3NSA, of the FOKN BOIS,  there is Kyekyeku who is the protege of legendary guitarist Koo Nimo, there is Jahwai who blends hiphop and reggae…there is Nana Asaase…and Mutombo the Poet…and a young singer, Lady Jay…gosh, I could go on forever!  All of these guys are so incredibly talented. They are the new wave of Ghanaian creatives and I can see them making history and being legends in our future. And, an organization like Accra Dot Alt brings all of these artists, including myself together for cultural events. These guys helped me find a place in Ghana when I didn’t know where I could fit in the current Ghanaian film industry and I’m looking forward to growing with them.  That’s my utopian vision of Africa…it’s right here in Ghana at the Rex Cinema, a place where a gray area of artists can unite and really have the freedom to create.

Click here to contribute and find out more about Owusu’s Kickstarter campaign.

For other information about the Rex and Ghanaian cinema culture:

Jennifer Blaylock (UC Berkeley doctoral student) on the Rex

Blaylock’s slideshow of cinemas in Accra in the late 1960s

JOT Ageyman’s blog post on the Ghanaian film industry

Brigit Meyer’s “Popular Ghanaian Cinema and African Heritage” (subscription required)

Black Sexual Economies: Conference on Transforming Black Sexualities Research

On September 27 & 28, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending, for the first time, the Black Sexual Economies conference that was held at Washington University Law in St. Louis.  Although Black Studies and its various permutations – African American Studies, Africana Studies, African Diaspora Studies – have been institutionalized for at least 40 years, research in Black Sexuality has often been marginalized within the academy. This conference brought together some of the most influential scholars in the broad, heterogeneous area of Black Sexuality Studies: Cathy Cohen, Tricia Rose, E. Patrick Johnson, Rinaldo Walcott, and Indiana University’s very own Marlon Bailey and LaMonda Horton-Stallings, to name just a few. Key organizers, presenters and other participants represented a wide variety of disciplines and research interests, as well as being representative of academic institutions across the United States.

IU's LaMonda Horton-Stallings with Cathy Cohen and Matt Richardson at Black Sexual Economies: Conference on Transforming Black Sexualities Research, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Marsha Horsley)

IU’s LaMonda Horton-Stallings with Cathy Cohen and Matt Richardson at Black Sexual Economies: Conference on Transforming Black Sexualities Research, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Marsha Horsley)

This was more than a conference, this was an experience. The emphasis was on mentorship, an often neglected and underestimated aspect of the academic environment, especially for scholars whose research is often viewed as risky, dangerous and taboo. The impetus of this conference was to provide a supportive intellectual environment for a new generation of scholars working in the overlapping areas of black/queer/trans/gender/diaspora/sexualities, opening up the now-institutionalized area of Gender and Sexuality studies, speaking to their blind spots, and creating much needed visibility around Black sexualities. While emphasizing the need to mentor younger scholars in this area, the key organizers, Mireilee Miller-Young and Adrienne Davis, were very aware of and acknowledged those scholars of an older generation, who had paved the way for us to do the kinds of research that we do. I felt as if I was part of a community, a community of scholars whom I could identify with and relate to. Community building can itself be a double-edged sword, especially when the idea of community can be exclusionary. However, the tone and atmosphere of this conference was one that celebrated and encouraged diversity – of people, for disciplines, of intellectual interests, of positions – emphasizing the potentialities of what a more progressive Black/Gender/Sexualities/Queer Studies project can look like. An important aspect of the conference was the validation of people’s research and what was most valuable was the ways in which more established scholars interacted with younger scholars, providing feedback and advice that was certainly aimed at enabling people to reach their fullest potential. Panel presentations, plenary sessions and workshops (pedagogy and methodologies) made this a holistic experience, grounding the conference in the very everyday experiences of learning how to navigate the academic institution.

Black cinema and visual culture definitely featured prominently amongst presenters. I was fortunate to present on a panel with two other scholars – Jennifer Nash and Ariane Cruz – working in the genre of pornography, an often marginalized and neglected area of research in Cinema/Film Studies. My paper was titled “Theatres of Transgression and Confession: Subverting Masculinities in Gay, Interracial, Bareback Pornography,” in which I explore representations of bareback sex between Black and White men, and argue that the association between barebacking and the death drive is insufficient to understand the complexities of this subculture. This was the natural association because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I suggest that barebacking needs to be theorized through the framework of futurity, one where the strict delineation between races and masculinities becomes increasingly blurred. While re-working this paper I am thinking about the relationship between sexual liberation and the potentialities for a new world order. The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive and has definitely allowed me to push my argument to the next level, as I prepare this paper for publication.

Jordache Ellapen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of American Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington.  He works as a publications assistant with director Michael Martin at the Black Film Center/Archive.


Third Annual Gary International Black Film Festival, October 18-20

This evening kicks off the Third Annual Gary International Black Film Festival (GIBFF) held at the Bergland Auditorium at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana. The mission of the GIBFF, as stated on their website is “To build community and culture through the experience of film.”


The GIBFF website further stated:

Our goal is to foster authentic discussion about our culture and history by using films that provide a counterbalance for widely distributed misaligned representation of our heritage and contributions to American and global society.  Some films are serious, some are funny and irreverent, but we hope that all the films are provocative enough to stay with the audience long after they have left the theater.

The three day festival, held from October 18th until October 20th, is comprised of more than ten film screenings and several in-depth discussions and film critiques with filmmakers,  for adults and youth. Ticket prices vary for the film screenings, and some of the featured discussion sessions are free to the public.


Director Alexandre Moors opens the GIBFF at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 18th with his feature debut film Blue Caprice.  Based on true events, Blue Caprice presents the bloody journey and viewpoint of the infamous father-son Beltway snipers.  Other filmmakers and directors featured in the GIBFF include Mark Perry (Veterans of Color), Ava DuVernay (The Door and Say Yes), Victoria Mahoney (Yelling to the Sky), Joel Kapity (Dreams), Jeymes Samuel (They Die by Dawn) Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George), and R Malcolm Jones (The Magic City). The GIBFF closes out their three-day festival with Gary-born filmmaker Charles Murray on Sunday, October 20th starting at 5 p.m.  Murray will be screening his film Things Never Said and hosting an intimate discussion following the screening.


For more information on the Gary International Black Film Festival please visit their website www.garyblackfilmfest.org or call (219)200-4243.

~Katrina Overby

Visiting Filmmaker Tunde Kelani Presents MAAMi Tonight!

At 7pm this evening at the IU Cinema, Director Tunde Kelani will present his 2011 feature film MAAMi. The screening is free and the film will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker. During his visit to Indiana University, Kelani will also participate the workshop program, “Digital Paradox: Piracy, Ownership, and the Constraints of African Screen Media,” along with Jean-Marie Teno, Mahen Bonetti, and others.  The “Digital Paradox” workshop, to be held at the Black Film Center/Archive on October 18, is being coordinated by Akin Adesokan, Beth Buggenhagen, Marion Frank-Wilson, Maria Grosz-Ngaté, and Marissa Moorman.


Filmmaker Tunde Kelani

As one of Nigeria’s finest filmmakers, Tunde Kelani is known for his ability to seamlessly blend the energy of Nollywood with rich traditional Yoruba culture.  Tunde Kelani received a diploma in Art and Technique of Filmmaking from the London International Film School.Working as a cinematographer, Tunde Kelani has produced films on 16mm which include: Anikura, Ogun Ajaye, Iya Ni Wura, Taxi Driver, Iwa, and Fopomoyo.  Tunde Kelani has also produced and directed two digital features: Saworoide and Thunderbolt.  Tunde Kelani has an eye for capturing traditional African culture and presenting it to the world in a highly engaging fashion. His film, MAAMi, which will be screening at 7pm tonight, is a keen representation of his abilities behind the camera.

MAAMi Poster/Sanya Communications

Adapted from a novel by Femi Osofisan, MAAMi is the story of a poor single mother who is raising her young son, Kashimawo, on her own in the Southern Nigerian town Abeokuta. Though struggling with parenting, Maami successfully raises her son, who evolves into an inspirational hero after accomplishing international prominence by joining an English football club.

On the eve of the 2010 World Cup, Kashimawo returns home from England to Nigeria and his hometown of Abeokuta. The football-mad nation is wild with speculation about whether or not he will decide to play for the Super Eagles and lead Nigeria to victory in South Africa. Kashimawo, however, has other things on his mind.

He returns with questions about his absent father and begins to piece together his bittersweet early years growing up in poverty with his mother. Old and painful memories are stirred up and must be confronted. This film, about love, perseverance, and fate, unfolds through Kashimawo’s reminiscences of his hardscrabble childhood in the southern Nigerian town, Abeokuta. The film is in Yoruba with English subtitles.

~Chinedu Amaefula

National Coming Out Day and Exploding Lineage! Film Screening

On October 11, 2013, 6:30pm, at IU Cinema there will be a free screening of Exploding Lineage! Queer of Color Histories in Experimental Media, featuring innovative work by a diverse group of 14 queer media artists of color..

March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “Join in the march, rally, and other related events” Pamphlet. October 11, 1987. HRC Records.

March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “Join in the march, rally, and other related events” Pamphlet. October 11, 1987. HRC Records.

Twenty-five years have passed since 300,000 to 500,000 people marched on Washington D.C. for gay rights; twenty-five years later, the fight for equality continues in the United States.

The events of October 11, 1987, represented the LGBTQ community’s frustration with the government’s response to the AIDS crisis and continued discrimination against gays.

At the time, the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights received little press coverage and it wasn’t until 1993, when another major March was launched, that the media began to pay attention to the issue of LGBTQ rights.

Still, for the gay community, the 1987 march signified a poignant moment of solidarity and unity.

In conjunction with the 1st anniversary of the 1987 march, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) was founded to celebrate individuals undertaking a significant right of passage – taking a stand to publicly identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer.

Keith Haring. National Coming Out Day sticker, n.d. HRC Records.

Keith Haring. National Coming Out Day sticker, n.d. HRC Records.

October 11, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the 25th celebration of National Coming Out Day. LGBTQ people and allies will come together to celebrate diversity, acceptance, and equality this Friday.  The theme this year is “Coming Out Still Matters – When people know someone who is LGBT, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Every person who speaks up changes more hearts and minds, and creates new advocates for equality.”

With this sentiment in mind, the the Black Film Center/Archive of Indiana University, several other IU departments, and Bloomington PRIDE are co-sponsoring a special free film screening at the Indiana University Cinema. The program of contemporary short films comes at a time when Indiana’s LGBTQ community fights HJR6, the proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to narrowly define marriage in the state as discriminatory and exclusive.

Hokum/Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler

Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler’s HOKUM draws on ideas of sex, gender, and Black masculinity and a soundtrack by Queer Harlem artists such as Gladys Bentley and Ma Rainey, to ask of its audience: what does it mean to take pleasure when viewing the queer Black female body?

Featuring innovative work by a diverse group of media artists, Exploding Lineage! Queer of Color Histories in Experimental Media, explores the complexities of identity construction in African, Asian, and Latin queer diasporas. The program, which premiered in 2012 at the 25th MIX NYC festival, includes KB Boyce’s Bulldagger Women and Sissy Men, a tribute to queer artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and Celeste Chan’s Bloodlines, a lyrical recognition of Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island due to the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Among the twelve other  filmmakers is Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler, who was recently honored as an influential African American leader by The Root for giving voice to black transgender people through art and scholarship; and 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow Indira Allegra, a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work explores forms of queer intimacy, text, trauma and racial identity through performance, video works and handwoven textiles.

Queer Origins/Celeste Chan

Artist, filmmaker, and curator Celeste Chan’s QUEER ORIGINS is an experimental animation laced with nostalgia.

The free screening of Exploding Lineage! will take place October 11, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the IU Cinema as part of its ongoing Underground Film series. Immediately following will be an open discussion with the program’s curators, KB Boyce and Celeste Chan. Boyce and Chan founded Queer Rebels in 2008 to showcase queer artists of color, connect generations, and honor our histories with art for the future.

Earlier on Friday, the Indiana University Bloomington’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Student Support Services office will host KB and Celeste for an informal Brown Bag Lunch Talk with students.  This event begins at 12:15 pm. at the GLBTSSS office, 705 E. 7th Street.  For more information about the Brown Bag talk, contact GLBTSSS at (812) 855-4252 / glbtserv@indiana.edu. 

The Exploding Lineage! event is presented by the Black Film Center/Archive and IU Cinema; and co-sponsored by Bloomington PRIDE, the East Asian Studies Center, the Center for the Study of Global Change, the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Department of American Studies, Department of Communication and Culture, Department of Gender Studies, Film and Media Studies program, and GLBT Student Support Services.

~Ardea Smith

50 Years: The March on Washington 1963-2013

Tonight, in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, U.S. State Department is preparing to live stream The March, a 1964 documentary by James Blue about the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. Preceding the film will be a short introduction by John Robinson, Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of State and following the film individuals are welcome to stay for a virtual discussion with Washington, DC-based civil rights experts who will answer participants questions and comments submitted online throughout the program. Please follow the link to participate in this global viewing party: https://conx.state.gov/event/global-viewing-party-the-march/

Official Program for the March on Washington, 08/28/1963, Source: Collection JFK-164: Post-Administration Records Collection, 1964 - 2011, National Archives

Planned March Route, Official Program for the March on Washington, 08/28/1963, Source: Post-Administration Records Collection, 1964 – 2011, National Archives

The March on Washington and James Blue’s documentary – The March

From early  June of 1963, with the formation of the coalition Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, to August 27, 1963 uncertainties plagued the minds of civil rights leaders across America. The “Big Six” had come together in June, determined to mobilize the people for a March on Washington. They had spent months clarifying the goals of the March, finding volunteers, organizing transportation, and publicizing the event. The “Big Six” faced down the threats of the Klu Klux Klan, the potential for police brutality, the lack of political support in Washington D.C., and the skepticism of the President of the United States John F. Kennedy.

Yet the biggest question that the “Big Six” could not answer was, “Will they come?”

On the morning of August 28th, 1963 the answer was apparent. While organizers had planned for anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 participants, the buses, trains, and endless streams of cars entering D.C. betrayed a much larger turnout. “Almost a continuous line of buses on the expressway,” police said. By 8:00 a.m., 100 buses an hour were streaming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. [March, p. 184-186]

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington.] Source:  Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 - 2003, National Archives

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington.] Source: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives

In total, over 250,000 people rallied together under the ringing voices of celebrities, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King as he exhorted “let freedom ring.”

March on Washington, 1963, Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress

March on Washington, 1963, Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress

Yet, despite the overwhelming success of the March on Washington and the outpouring of support for civil and human rights, the political wheels moved more slowly. At the end of the rally, President Kennedy invited the march leaders to the White House to discuss the pending civil rights bills, where some leaders pushed for strengthening portions of the bill. President Kennedy was cordial and non-committal in his support. As the weeks passed the civil rights legislation seemed to be stalling and the momentum and optimism inspired by the March began to fade.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, Library of Congress

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, Library of Congress

It would take another 2 years before both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were passed.

During the political stalemate in the United States – with an uncertain ambivalence in the air over the future of civil rights – a much different message was being promoted to foreign countries. As part of the United States Information Agency (USIA), films were produced as part of a desire to attract support and cooperation for American policies in foreign countries, part of a soft power movement relying on covert propaganda. As part of the USIA’s film series, the documentary The March, chronicling the March on Washington, was produced by James Blue and released overseas in 1964.

James Blue, documentary filmmaker

James Blue, documentary filmmaker, Source: Glasstire

Despite the US government’s reluctance to lend its support in the lead up to the March and the political tepidity following August 28, 1963, James Blue’s 1964 documentary The March, presents a much more unified front in support of the civil rights movements. Carl T. Rowan, the Director of the United States Information Agency states in his introduction to the film, “Ladies and Gentleman…I have the privilege to present to you a dramatic document of man’s continuing search for dignity. It is a film about the great civil rights march at Washington. A moving exercise of one of the most cherished rights in the free society, the right of peaceful protest. I believe that this demonstration of both whites and negroes supported by the federal government and by both President Johnson and the late President Kennedy, is a profound example of the procedures unfettered men use to broaden the horizons of freedom and deepening the meaning of personal liberty.”

The film captures the buses rolling into Washington, sandwiches being made for the thousands of participants, performances along the Reflecting Pool, blacks and whites using the same water fountain, and other images meant to capture the cohesive racial equality that occurred in Washington on August 28, 1963.

Interestingly, The March was never seen by the American public. Due to concerns about the repercussions or effects of the U.S. Government using propaganda on its own people, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act mandated that no USIA film could be shown within the U.S without a special act from Congress.

It was only with a Congressional Act in 1990 that films such as James Blue’s The March were authorized to be screened domestically.

Now, with the help of the National Archives, the American public is not only able to witness imagery from one of the largest political rallies for civil right in the history of the United States but also the ways in which the United States government portrayed The March on Washington abroad for its own purposes.

If you are interested in learning more about the making of The March, please visit the following link (http://blogs.archives.gov/mediamatters/2013/08/20/making-the-march/) to a blog post by Criss Kovac, supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives. As part of a larger project to digitally restore The March, Criss Kovac provides a detailed and thought-provoking post on James Blue’s film-making process and the ensuing controversy within the USIA over the final film, its message, content, and release.

To learn more about the recent digital restoration of The March conducted by the National Archives, one can also follow the link (http://blogs.archives.gov/mediamatters/2013/08/22/preservationrestorationthemarch/) to learn more about the process, from the arrival of the damaged reels to the laboratory to the compilation of the repaired frames.

For those in Washington D.C., the first screening of the National Archives digital restoration of James Blue’s The March will be held at noon, August 26th, in the McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building.  Additional screenings will be held at noon on August 27th and 28th as well. For those unable to attend in person the film will also be available on the National Archive’s YouTube channel beginning August 26th.

~Ardea Smith


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