Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the twin architects of the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, were both artists. Bayard Rustin was a singer.
Before devoting his life to organizing labor and to the Civil Rights movement, A. Philip Randolph was an Shakespearean actor.
The background these two leaders had in the performing arts matches up well with the background of the man who documented the March they created and led. James Blue was an actor. His undergraduate degree was in theater.
All three men were prepared to see the events on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963 as theater. James Blue makes sure we understand that the 200,000 Americans there that day did not just passively watch, but instead actively co-created the “spectacle”, as Life magazine called it. They shouted, clapped, held hands and, most of all, sang. The March looks like a newsreel, but it sounds like a musical.
Just as Robert Altman’s Nashville would do twenty years later, The March presents American political life as a contest fought on the stage of pop culture as much as in the voting booth.
Is there a line between these two spheres?
Is it a “black thing” to collapse pop culture and politics?
You tell me.
Here’s James Blue’s boss at USIA:
George Stevens, Jr, (above left) was fourth generation show business. His father, Oscar winning director George Stevens (above right), was active in the founding of the NEA. George Stevens, Jr. recruited James Blue for USIA at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, after seeing The Olive Trees Of Justice.
Here’s George Stevens, Jr.’s boss at USIA:
Edward R. Murrow (like Blue, from the Pacific Northwest) became famous during WWII for his ability to deliver the news under crisis conditions. James Blue likely heard his popular Hear It Now radio program, a spin off of one of the best selling Columbia records in 1948, the historically themed You Can Hear It Now. Hard to believe that we once had best selling history records!
Here’s Edward R. Murrow’s boss at USIA:
President John F. Kennedy’s tie to America pop culture was very straight forward. His father, Joseph Kennedy (above left) had a brief, intensely lucrative tour of duty in the movie business in the late 1920’s. The money he made putting together, and then selling, RKO Pictures helped send his son to the White House. While there, John F. Kennedy tapped newsman Edward R. Murrow to head USIA. Murrow hired George Stevens, Jr., and Stevens hired James Blue.
James Blue was given the assignment to make a film about race in America. He chose instead to make a film about the March. (Ed. note: Since writing this I learned from Christina Kovac it was George Stevens, Jr. who made the decision to film the March. Nevertheless, James Blue’s USIA memo, in which he argues that racial tension in America was caused by white racism, not black poverty, reveals that Stevens’ decision matches up with his own interests.).
I saw The March on November 13, 2013 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene as part of the James Blue Tribute. It was introduced by Gerald O’Grady, longtime colleague of James Blue. Sheldon Renan, who served on the same NEA media funding panel in the early 1970s as James Blue, was in the audience.
You can see The March in Portland.
At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Gill Dennis, Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem.
Tickets can be purchased here.
More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.
Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by the James Blue Alliance, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.
Notes On James Blue is supported by the James Blue Alliance. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance.