It’s difficult to dramatize the process of organization, even organization of an event as historic and important as the 1963 March on Washington. But PBS tried with The March.
The hour-long documentary begins with the almost unthinkable police-led violence in Birmingham, Ala., and ends with March speaker and now U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., celebrating progress made since 1963. The perspective is limited, making it easy to dismiss the events of the past as the past.
But this year marks 50 since the March on Washington, and the civil rights movement is invoked more frequently than ever. Current movements, from gay rights to Occupy Wall Street, use it as a comparison point, and understanding the success of the March on Washington is probably the only way to evaluate their claims.
The March on Washington is remembered now as a gathering, but the real accomplishment was the effort it took to plan it. The March includes much of that behind-the-scenes work, including several threats to its success that could have derailed or obliterated the event. Unfortunately, the editing does not always make the solutions clear.
Denzel Washington provides neutral narration, allowing old footage of organizers and new interviews with people involved to stand out as the real drama.
The stakes seem realistically high during much of the film’s dissection of the event. But then someone like Oprah, who was 9 at the time, appears on screen crediting her accomplishments to the 10 hours that 200,000 people crowded the National Mall. Once again it becomes easy to forget that the March was the most visible event of the civil rights movement, but a symbol of change, not change itself.
And perhaps that is why today’s frequent rallies are passionate but often haphazard and a flicker on the national radar.