In its fifth year of showcasing films, panels and programs focused on civil rights, the March on Washington Film Festival presented a few firsts for the momentous occasion.
In the opening of the 10 days of programming, the first annual Vivian Malone Courage Award, named for the woman who integrated the University of Alabama, was bestowed upon author Ta-Nehisi Coates. The award took the shape of an original painting “Fear No Evil” by renowned artist Avis Collins Robinson.
Coates, who is no stranger to awards after winning a coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the National Book Award for nonfiction for his book “Between the World and Me,” seemed genuinely moved to receive this first-time honor given by Malone’s sister, Dr. Sharon Malone, who is also the wife of former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Earlier that day at the Naval Memorial, Diahann Carroll joined her filmmaker daughter, Suzanne Kay, who is making the film “Sullivision: The Ed Sullivan Story” about the legendary television host who helped many African-American performers move into the mainstream despite opposition to his having them as guests.
As the week progressed, a panel on the Baton Rouge bus boycott, “Civil Rights, Resistance and the Power of the Purse: Highlighting the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott of 1953,” featured the film “Signpost to Freedom,” showing how the community in the Louisiana city used their economic strength to force desegregation of the buses years before the Birmingham Bus Boycott in 1955.
A panel of lawyers, including Vanita Gupta, former head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, discussed the significance of this early display of resistance.
“Baton Rouge was an example of consumer activism,” she commented after a shortened version of the documentary was screened at Google’s Washington office.
“We certainly didn’t learn about the boycott in school,” Christopher Tyson, a professor at Louisiana State University Law Center and Baton Rouge native, added. “We knew something was happening even if it wasn’t in Birmingham.”
The film festival also presented two stellar films at the National Museum of Women in the Arts which serves as a regular venue for programs during the festival.
The film “Paris Noir-African Americans and the City of Light” told the story of African-American artists, musicians and writers who moved to France in order to escape the racist Jim Crow system in the U.S. Luminaries such as Josephine Baker, who became a French national treasure and worked as an informer during World War II for her adopted country, were joined over the decades by Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Sidney Bechet, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and others seeking freedom and appreciation of their talents in a less segregated society.
Julia Browne, owner and founder of “Walking the Spirit Black Paris Tours” and co-producer of the film, reinforced the stories of these icons and their motives to move to Paris, and in the case of Baker and Baldwin, to return to the U.S. to participate in the civil rights movement.
“Winnie” was screened at the museum the following day, telling the story of Winnie Mandela in a new documentary film, followed by a discussion between poet Elizabeth Alexander and Gay McDougall, an attorney who won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work in international human rights, particularly in South Africa.
As the festival began winding down, golden opportunities such as the screening of “Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith” shown at the nation’s highest court, paid homage to Judge Keith who celebrated his 50th year on the federal bench.
“Most of the time we show these films after the subject has passed away,” filmmaker Jesse Nesser commented. “Today we have the honor to show this film in the presence of Judge Keith in person.”
The March on Washington Film Festival, held each year, celebrates the people and the events of the civil rights movement. It was conceived by Robert Raben following the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013.
“We wanted to keep that spirit of activism alive,” said Isisara Bey, executive producer of the festival. “Each year we try to get out into the city and showcase these fantastic and educational films.”