March on Washington Film Festival

March on Washington Film Festival 

by D. Amari Jackson 

“You are touched by people so long in the past that they didn’t know your names, when you’re the dream that they had for today, and now you are creating a place for those whose names you don’t know and they won’t know you. They will be the manifestation of the visions that you have.

-Isisara Bey, Artistic Director, March on Washington Film Festival
from On Vision, TEDxBarnardCollegeWomen/TEDx Talks, Jan 2013

     The March on Washington Film Festival (MOWFF), as its name confirms, was born of struggle. Sixty one years ago, on August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held at the Lincoln Memorial as more than a quarter million people descended upon the Capitol to demand equal rights and access for all American citizens. The March on Washington Film Festival—a hybrid festival taking place October 6-13, 2024 with both in-person events in Washington, D.C. and film screenings on the online platform Eventive—pulls from this iconic event to encourage contemporary activism while increasing awareness of the untold events and unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Era. The festival is the longest running festival dedicated to civil rights in the country.
                  "Assa" by Alfred Conteh
     “People are empowered when they have the ability to tell their own truthful stories,” says Joanne Irby, executive director of the festival. “When young people grow up in school and learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about Dr. King and Rose Parks. But there was so much more to the movement,” clarifies Irby, “so much more strategy and so many more people beyond the boldface names we learned about in school. So we are laser focused on telling the story of both, the leaders as well as the foot soldiers of the movement, particularly while making connections to what today’s
social justice movements look like,” she explains, noting “it’s about strategy, it’s about intentionality.”
     BAIA’s own Najee Dorsey, who has curated the festival’s art component several times over the past decade, will serve as both curator and featured artist for this year’s event. Among his past interactions with MOWFF, Dorsey curated the 2018 exhibit featuring the work of Spiral, the iconic collective of famed artists including Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff Richard Mayhew, and Emma Amos, among others.
“We’re so excited that Najee is going to be our featured artist of this year’s festival,” says Irby. “There will be a visual art gallery at the festival this year, as well as opportunities for people to purchase fine art and learn more about art investing and collecting because that is a space that often can often be intimidating, right? How do I know what to invest in? How do I even know what I like?” laughs Irby, adding “and how do I know what I don’t like? So we’ll have some learning sessions about that as well as the opportunity to engage directly with Najee. It’s just a wonderful connection.”
     “It was an opportunity to partner with another cultural institution, to expand our audiences, and to curate shows based on the themes they are celebrating each year,” acknowledges Dorsey, detailing how at “they’re celebrating writers, so my Baldwin and Zora pieces I created over the last few years just made for a perfect fit for this year’s festival.”
     Given the name of her organization is the March on Washington Film Festival as the event initially focused on film, Irby qualifies that the festival’s offerings now cover more areas of the artistic spectrum including visual art, performing arts, and writing. “We’re doing an examination of writers from all genres,” she explains, noting “this year happens to be the 100th birth year of James Baldwin, so we’ll certainly acknowledge and celebrate that. But whether you're talking about writers from the Harlem Renaissance period or the writers of today, be it journalism, fiction, or nonfiction, they all play a role in terms of how we tell our stories and how we see ourselves represented. So we’ll have a writers’ roundtable and a journalists’ round table to talk about the kinds of stories and issues that are not broadly talked about currently,” continues Irby, along with “an emergent filmmaking salon looking at the way that augmented reality and artificial intelligence are changing the way that storytelling can happen.”
"Baldwin in Paris" by Najee Dorsey

     On June 8 between 5pm and 9 pm, Dorsey will host a fine art fundraising exhibition for the festival at Black Art In America Gallery at 1802 Connally Drive in Atlanta. As the official arts partner for the MOWFF, BAIA will devote a portion of all sales to benefit the festival’s programming with 20% of a May pre-sale of ten works by featured artists going to the festival.
    “The event on June 8th is not only about the support and raising of funds for the March on Washington Film Festival, but also to highlight, to celebrate, and to further deepen the connection between the March on Washington Film Festival and the Greater Atlanta community,” offers W. Imara Canady, an Atlanta-based consultant to the MOWFF. Canady—after praising Dorsey’s featured role in the upcoming October festival and his national reputation as an Atlanta-based artist—promotes the value of such “interconnectivity of the work and the multifaceted expression of what happens during the physical time of the March on Washington Film Festival in DC and its connection to the ongoing national programming that happens in communities across the country.”
     “The thing that we’re doing here in Atlanta on the 8th is finding other ways where we can engage audiences and be more supportive of the festival’s initiatives,” says Dorsey, pointing to how “most Black institutions struggle to raise capital to keep programming and their initiatives going. So anytime that we can cross pollinate and work with each other with the resources that we’ve got, it just makes for a stronger relationship, a better win-win, and more wins for the community.”
    Ultimately, the community is the primary beneficiary of the festival itself, now in its 11th year. Along with educating participants on Black history, the festival provides a compelling space for this powerful connection between art and storytelling.
    “Our people, people of African descent, have always been spiritually connecting through the arts,” says Irby, promoting it as the “way that we communicate, the way that we share our history, the way that we rejuvenate ourselves spiritually and emotionally, particularly in times of challenge. And, you know, it’s always times of challenge for Black people in America,” she laughs, before clarifying that “the arts are more than just simply entertainment. They are a life sustaining and humanity defining part of who we are. So you start with that foundation, but then you add to that that ability to educate and inform.”
"Odyssey Love" - by Akinola Taoheed
“There’s such a dearth of accurate historical storytelling for our community regarding our collective history,” laments Irby. “So to be able to connect, to engage people in a way that both is filling them up spiritually and then also educating them about what really happened, it is instructive to our young people and our activists who are coming up now to recognize that movement building is more than just being mad. It’s about having a really informed strategy and building the tactics that will actually drive that strategy.”
     Canaday agrees, characterizing the event as “so much more than just a festival” as it “utilizes a powerful genre of multifaceted artistic and cultural expressions to connect the learnings, the teachings, the legacy and the impact of the Civil Rights Movement to modern day movements and the issues of today. It is so much more than just sitting down and watching films. It is a cultural journey that connects the past to the now and to what we can do to change our future.”
     Irby further acknowledges the study of the civil rights era and its compelling stories as an informative foundation for the evolving technological tools and movement-based capacities of today.
     “There’s a sense of inspiration that comes from recognizing where our people have been and what they’ve been through that then enables us to say, ‘We can do this, right?” says Irby, since “it has been done. We have been here before, and we can move it through this again. And so I point to the fact that the festival itself is not only about looking backward, but about connecting that path to the present.”
"Jacobs Ladder" by Traci Mims

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