Too often documentaries view history through a rearview mirror. The outcome almost overwhelms the story.
That's not the case with "The March," a compelling look at the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights.
Thanks to plenty of interviews and actual footage, director John Akomfrah is able to spill this out as if it's happening today. It's coverage without the social media clutter, history without the headline-grabbing histrionics.
Even better, it's a place where participants express doubt and reveal the tenuous nature of something we now view as a no-brainer.
While Oprah Winfrey checks in (even though she was too young to have been a participant in the 1963 event), she's not the compelling voice. John Lewis, another of the speakers that day, towers, sharing behind-the-scenes activity (he was almost barred from speaking), insight into Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and words that may have blunted the moment's power. The remembrances are forceful, particularly when organizers like Rachelle Horowitz detail how they worried if anyone would turn up in Washington.
In that footage, however, we see Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier signing a pledge and the Kennedy administration wondering how they can support the cause without causing their own outcry.
What's particularly striking is the peaceful way in which marchers approached the site. More than 150,000 arrived in the nation's capital, hoping to send a message. Oddly, they were all dressed up (on a hot August day), ready to witness history.
And then? Akomfrah introduces the singers -- Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson among them -- before hitting us with the main attraction.
When Martin Luther King Jr. approaches the podium, we get plenty of background to help us understand what could -- or couldn't -- happen. You can hear Jackson, his favorite singer, shout something. And then he launches into that now-famous speech. The moment is electrifying.
When witnesses recall how they felt, you'll share their goosebumps, too. And when Lewis talks about the monument erected to King, "The March" gets its button.
Because this is such a well-made anatomy of a demonstration, "The March" could serve as a primer for others seeking change through peaceable means. Later protests didn't have the same demeanor. But this one sent a message that couldn't be ignored.
Narrated by Denzel Washington (who's excellent at providing the necessary urgency), "The March" should be must-viewing for all Americans. It's a look at a time when people worked together for an important cause.
"The March" airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.