Short Starts is a column devoted to kicking off the week with a short film, typically one tied to a new release. Today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rather than a new release, we present a 1964 USIA documentary starring the civil rights leader.
Who hasn’t seen Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have a Dream” speech? Maybe you’ve only heard the audio before, but if you’re a good American you’ve likely seen at least part of some footage of the historical message of peace among the descendents of slaves and slave owners. You won’t see the entire speech in James Blue’s “The March,” though careful editing makes it seem so. The 17-minute address has been abridged to less than seven whole minutes for the climax of this half-hour short.
The rest of the film consists of the overall proceedings of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, of which the King speech is the most famous part. As you may see in this film, if you don’t know already, the events of August 28, 1963, also included musical performances by the likes of Joan Baez and Marian Anderson and a lot of collective singing from the crowd, mainly of the civil rights anthems “We Shall Overcome” and “We Will Not Be Moved.” Other scenes show us people traveling by bus and by train, or preparing food for the crowds.
“The March” is technically a U.S. propaganda film even if it seems a rather tame record of history. Produced by George Stevens, Jr., for the United States Information Agency (USIA), its purpose was to be distributed outside the country and never be seen domestically at all unless allowed by a special act of Congress (members of which disapproved of this one). Some Americans were apparently permitted to see the film in 1964, because there was much controversy around its portrayal of the event, partly because it was admission to the rest of the world that things weren’t perfect over here. Others claimed it to be an excellent example of the American right to peaceful protest and assembly.
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Directed by James Blue, who would earn an Oscar nomination for his next USIA documentary (“A Few Notes on Our Food Problem”), the filmmaker was recruited for the project due to the success of his 1962 Cannes entry “The Olive Trees of Justice,” a dramatic narrative feature about The Algerian War. He actually had nothing to do with the shooting of the “March” footage, which was filmed by Hearst News cameramen specifically for Stevens. Blue came on for the edit, through which he was to construct a documentary in which the content spoke for itself as much as possible, without voiceover. There is some expositional narration, but not much compared to other films of the time — at least those not made by Drew Associates veterans (with whom Blue felt a kinship). The introduction at the beginning, by USIA’s Carl T. Rowan, was tacked on later in response to criticisms.
In 1990, Congress finally allowed “The March” and other USIA films to be shown in the U.S. The short documentary was later added to the National Film Registry in 2008, where it will be preserved and archived by the Library of Congress for its historical significance. The NFR has made the work publicly available on YouTube, where it’s divided up into three videos, one for each of its reels. Watch it in full below:
Disclosure: the clear photo above does not come from “The March”