TO MARK THE 57TH ANNIVERSARY of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is making its grand opening film, “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People,” available online, free to public for 24 hours, beginning tomorrow morning. “Aug. 28” is an exclusively commissioned 22-minute film by Ava DuVernay.

The film program coincides with the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March on Washington, a new generation march led by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN). In the wake of nationwide racial justice protests, NAN is calling for a day of action focused on police accountability, criminal justice reform, and voter participation.

Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, are expected to be joined by attorney Benjamin Crump and the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, and Jacob Blake.

 


Actors Angela Bassett and Andre Holland in “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People.” | NMAAHC

 

Organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought about 250,000 people from across the country to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. Americans advocating for racial and economic justice filled the National Mall, gathering at the Lincoln Memorial where leaders of the Big Six civil rights organizations gave soaring remarks calling on the Kennedy Administration to support civil rights legislation.

SNCC Chairman John Lewis and NAACP President Roy Wilkins, were among the speakers. SCLC leader Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his historic “I Have a Dream Speech.” Marion Anderson sang “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.”

NEARLY SIX DECADES LATER, Black leaders are asking Americans to return to the National Mall for the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March on Washington. The gathering will unfold on the same grounds as NMAAHC, where the 1963 march is documented with objects and images. The museum is commemorating the historic march with a multimedia web resource page, in addition to making the DuVernay film available online (watch below).

Conceived as an orientation film, “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People” was introduced when NMAAHC opened on Sept. 24, 2016, and was screened in the museum during the inaugural year. DuVernay’s concept for the film was inspired by the fact that Aug. 28 is a profoundly significant date in Black history.

The March on Washington occurred on Aug. 28 and so did several other key events, on the same date in different years. On Aug. 28, 1833, slavery was abolished in the UK by royal assent. On the same day in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Miss. Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in 2005, and then-Sen. Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 2008.

 


Aug. 28, 1963: Americans from across the nation filled the National Mall, an endless sea of people gathered for the March on Washington. | Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

 

The film dramatizes the historic events, references Motown music, invokes the poetry of Langston Hughes, and features an impressive slate of A-list actors including Reginia King, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Don Cheadle. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director, who now serves as secretary of the Smithsonian, reflected on the film in his memoir, “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.”

In a chapter titled “Welcoming America Home,” which focuses on the opening of the museum, Bunch wrote about meeting DuVernay for the first time. He was so impressed with her storytelling in the feature film Selma, he hoped she would work with the museum on the orientation film. He was unsure, however, if she would be interested. Bunch wrote a fascinating account of how the project came together:

    Through the process of museum-making, I urged the staff never to think small and never to cut corners. This project, this community, deserved the very best we could produce. When it came to the orientation
    film, I turned my attention to the creativity within black Hollywood. And the person I wanted to produce this film was Ava DuVernay. I had first met her in December 2014 when I attended one of Oprah Winfrey’s Legend Balls in Santa Barbara, California, where she created a weekend-long event that honored pioneers of the Civil Rights struggle—from Marian Wright Edelman to Harry Belafonte to John Lewis and Sydney Poitier.…

    Yet one of the highlights for me was a preview of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma. I was captured by her storytelling ability that made a history that I knew well seem fresh and untold. I knew then that Ava was someone whose talents needed to be included within NMAAHC. We then met again when I interviewed her as part of the museum’s important public program to address the pain and the significance of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. We spent an hour on stage at the National Museum of the American
    Indian discussing the role that the arts and cultural institutions could fulfill in response to tragedies like the shooting of Michael Brown.

    Whenever I thought about the importance of the orientation film, I returned to my conversation with Ava. Several months later I decided to ask her if she would create a special film for the museum. Candidly, I was unsure if she would be interested or that we could afford what I thought would be an exorbitant fee for a publicly funded museum that was part of the federal government. After a series of phone calls where I discussed the museum’s vision and our desire to be an activist institution with a commitment to social justice, Ava expressed a great deal of interest. I tried to contain my excitement because I just knew that we could not afford one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood. Much to my surprise and relief, she offered to create the film as long as we could offset some of the direct costs. When I asked about her fee, she said this is about honoring our culture, not about her.

    “After a series of phone calls where I discussed the museum’s vision and our desire to be an activist institution with a commitment to social justice, Ava expressed a great deal of interest.” — Lonnie G. Bunch

    As we began to discuss the specifics of the film, Ava felt that such a broad message required us to narrow the focus of the project and find the thread that would knit the piece together. During one of our calls, she shared that she had discovered that the calendar day August 28 was an important date in black history. She believed that she could craft a film that looked at the array of events that had either begun or ended on August 28 over the years. I was even surprised by all that had transpired on that specific day… I was fascinated by the idea, but I worried that it might be too narrowly focused. We then considered looking at the month of August as a timeframe, which would, of course, increase the number of possible events that the film could depict. But Ava was right in her desire to focus on one day in the history of a people.

    Ava was able to make this concept work by drawing on a diverse cast of talented actors who recognized the importance of the museum and reveled in the opportunity to work with Ava. I could not believe that so many actors I admired participated in this production. As I reviewed the rough cuts, I was so moved to see Don Cheadle, Regina King, Angela Bassett, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Michael Ealy, Andre Holland, and Glynn Turman using their skills to benefit NMAAHC. What made this film work was Ava’s talents—her unique way of focusing on two men creating a coffin to carry the body of Emmett Till, her vision of experiencing the carnage and loss caused by Hurricane Katrina through the struggle of one woman to survive, her sensibility in exploring the tensions between a mother and daughter through the music of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman”—all brought a needed humanity and accessibility to these historical events. I will always be indebted to Ava for sharing her gifts so generously and to Oprah for inviting me to the party.

DuVernay talked with CBS News about the film. Being offered the commission “knocked her socks off,” the filmmaker said. She added: “They said that it would be a film that would welcome people into this museum that’s so special to us, that’s so special to so many people throughout the generations. The first thing that they’ll see when they go in is this orientation film and would I do it. Huh?” The answer was “yes.” CT

 

“August 28: A Day in the Life of a People” will be available to view on the museum’s website and YouTube channel starting Aug. 28, 2020, at 10:00 a.m. EST for 24 hours.

 

FIND MORE about the 2020 March on Washington from The Washington Post

 

WATCH MORE A video by NMAAHC, “Why We March” explores 60 years of protest for racial and social justice from the 1963 March on Washington to the Women’s March in 2017

 


Filmmaker Ava DuVernay talks to CBS’s Gail King about the concept for her film “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People.” | Video by CBS News

 


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture commissioned Ava DuVernay to make its orientation film, “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People,” which debuted at the museum’s grand opening 2016. (Available for 24 hours beginning Aug. 28, 2020 at 10 a.m. EST.) | Video by NMAAHC

 

BOOKSHELF
“A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” by Lonnie G. Bunch III is a compelling and insightful read. Bunch takes readers behind-the-scenes of his more than decade-long journey envisioning and developing the museum. The incredibly detailed and intensely personal memoir sheds light on how he assembled his staff and many advisors, built the collection of objects and art, raised money, selected the architects, navigated the bureaucracy of Congress and the Smithsonian, and planned an opening celebration with three U.S. Presidents and an orientation film by Ava DuVernay. Historian John Meacham just published “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope,” a new book about the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.

 

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