Robert Redford-Produced PBS Doc to Mark 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

March on Washington - H 2013
AFP/Getty Images

March on Washington - H 2013

Directed by filmmaker John Akomfrah, "The March" will offer first-hand accounts and rarely seen footage from the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Supreme Court delivered to the producers of PBS' upcoming March on Washington documentary -- set to air Aug. 27 on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the march -- a timely new hook when the High Court on June 25 struck down a key component of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The March, directed by John Akomfrah of U.K.-based Smoking Dogs Films and co-produced by Robert Redford’s Sundance Productions, recounts the story behind the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the final stirring rendition of his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of more than 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall.

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“History has a way of repeating itself,” says Laura Michalchyshyn, Redford’s partner at Sundance Productions and an executive producer on the film. “We’re telling the story of the March on Washington in a manner that is frankly very provocative. Our hope is to create something where you feel like you’re actually there.”

The documentary includes interviews with key players from King’s inner circle, including Jack O’Dell, director of voter registration for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference who was forced out of the movement over ties to communism; Clarence B. Jones, King’s legal counsel and close friend; Norman Hill, a march coordinator who would continue to organize marches after King’s assassination in 1968; and Rachelle Horowitz, top lieutenant to the late Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the March on Washington.

Akomfrah and his team also tracked down Edith Lee-Payne, the 12-year-old featured in the now iconic picture from the march, and Rowland Scherman, the photographer who snapped the picture. CBS News anchor Roger Mudd plays an important part in stitching together the narrative of that day. Akomfrah also attempted to wrangle Dan Rather, but Rather’s schedule proved prohibitive. Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll and Oprah Winfrey are featured. Producers have unearthed rare home movie footage, including performances by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, says Akomfrah. 

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Akomfrah’s documentary is the centerpiece of a week of PBS programming -- on TV and online -- celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that will also include coverage on PBS broadcasts such as NewsHour, a five-part web series The March @ 50 on the PBS Black Culture Connection site, as well as Memories of the March, web vignettes created and commissioned by PBS stations that feature eyewitness testimony from that day. Some of those vignettes may make their way into Akomfrah’s film, which he is still editing. And it was through that effort that PBS discovered valuable artifacts, including a paper program for what was officially called The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It is an example of an initiative -- greatly aided by the advent of social media -- that Beth Hoppe, PBS chief programming executive, hopes will continue around future marquee PBS programs.

“We’re urging our local stations to become the YouTubes of their markets,” says Hoppe.

PBS provided small grants to stations toward production costs, and the public broadcaster had many more applications than they could fund. Fourteen stations in all are participating, including WQED in Pittsburgh and DPTV in Detroit. 

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The March, which is also co-produced by New York-based production company Cactus Three, is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, the BBC and France 3. The film also will air internationally on the latter two.

“This is one of these events that I swore as a kid if I ever became a filmmaker I would do something with,” says Akomfrah, who was born in Ghana and has produced a series of historical and music documentaries on subjects ranging from Malcolm X to British jazz composer Stan Tracey to pop star Mariah Carey. Asked if the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act will be acknowledged in The March, Akomfrah replies: “At the moment, my epilogue is the signing of the [Civil Rights Act of 1964]. So it screws with my narrative somewhat. But it’s important, so we may have to say something about it.

“When you look at the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court was absolutely critical,” he continues, citing Brown v. Board of Education. “So the idea that that very system through which redress was sought would now be the one that would be clawing back some of those gains is ironic to say the least.”