MARTIN LUTHER KING & THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON is another magical film from the Hackney based Smoking Dogs. Directed by Jon Akomfrah this evocative and historically illuminating documentary celebrates the pivotal moment in modern history when the the Civil Rights movement descended on Washington DC to pressurise a vulnerable but sympathetic President John F Kennedy to go forward with his Civil Rights Bill.
As with all Smoking Dogs films it’s beautifully constructed and while the story is imbued with an intense urgency it’s punctuated by a monochrome, dream like quality that’s graced, at one point, by Miles Davis’ muted horn.
The rigorous nature of Jon Akomfrah’s directorship ensures that Dr King’s role was not elevated in importance above others who played a crucial role in making the march happen. At the heart of the organisation was the so called ‘Big Six’ led by the charismatic Philip Randolph – president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council – and his right hand man Bayard Rustin.
The ‘Big Six’ also included John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), and Whitney Young (National Urban League) and it was their task to mobilise and marshall grass roots support from across the nation for a march focused on non violent direct action for freedom and jobs.
Through deftly researched archive footage and photography we get drawn into the momentum of the movement as the activists descended on the nations cities. Simultaneously we are introduced into a web of dark White House politics and cold war paranoia.
On the day, fear of impending riots ensured that a small army of troops was on alert in DC. J Edgar Hoover and the FBI had whipped up fear of communist infiltration and that undoubtedly contributed to Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young objecting to Bayard Rustin as a leader for the march because he was a homosexual, a suspected Communist and a draft resister. Eventually the duo accepted Rustin as deputy organizer, on the condition that Randolph act as lead organizer and manage any political fallout.
It was great to Harry Belafonte, a tireless activist, gathering support in Hollywood and something of a surprise to Charlton Heston (he became the president of the National Rifle Association) on the front line. The presence of these celebrities like Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen alongside musical activists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez added a new dimension to the struggle and on the day it was the shoulder to shoulder coming together of black and white Americans that made the march on Washington one of the most profound events in US history.
Though the film doesn’t go into it there were those, like Malcolm X, who saw the march as a farce but the film genuinely conveys the political tension on the platform that day, especially in relation to John Lewis’ speech which talked about the black (not negro) masses and how there would no “cooling off” period after the march.
The world over, people recognise the words… the vision… that Dr Martin Luther King Jnr testified to from the podium of the Lincoln Memorial on that day, but I for one didn’t know that he was on the cusp of finishing his prepared speech when the voice of the mighty Mahalia Jackson emerged from crowd behind urging him, “Tell Them about the dream!”
The rest is history.
If you are in the UK you can view here (there’s only a couple more days left!) : http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b039dyn8/Martin_Luther_King_and_the_March_on_Washington/
If you are in the US you can view here: