In 2016 there came a landmark moment in the cultural life of the United States, with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. To mark the occasion, the museum commissioned acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay to make a short film, and for her subject, she selected a single date: August 28th.
'I chose to focus on a date that has fascinated me for years,' she explained in an interview at the time. A few years later, she again emphasised its striking significance, tweeting that 'August 28 is a monumental day in Black history.'
Ava DuVernay has long chronicled and analysed the black experience in America in her work. Her 2014 film Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign for voting rights for African-Americans, led to DuVernay becoming the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director. Her Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary film 13th delved into the ugly realities of race and mass incarceration in the US, while her 2019 series When They See Us told the story of the five black men who were falsely imprisoned for an assault in New York City in 1989.
So what was it about August 28th that drew the attention of one of the world’s most renowned black directors? As DuVernay put it, 'In my eyes, August 28 tells so much about black history through the lens of one date.' Her film looks at several seminal events that took place on that date across the generations – a coincidence that draws attention to turning points both tragic and triumphant throughout the timeline of Black America.
The earliest date explored in the film is August 28th 1833, when a law abolishing slavery across most of the British Empire was given royal assent. As DuVernay has said, this great change would have a 'trickle down effect' on slavery in the United States. The milestone had been a very long time coming. The British slave trade itself had been outlawed decades before, in 1807, but slavery as an institution had continued.
The reforms were partly the result of tireless campaigning by the likes of politician William Wilberforce, who had prophetically described slavery as 'this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country.' People of colour, such as Jamaican lawyer Richard Hill, played key parts in the struggle, while the vast slave rebellion that took place in Jamaica at the end of 1831, known as the Baptist War or Christmas Rebellion, also helped usher in the end of slavery in the Empire.
Another date covered in Ava DuVernay’s film is August 28th, 1955. It was in the early hours of this day that black teenager Emmett Till was dragged from the home of a relative in Mississippi, savagely beaten and murdered. His alleged 'crime'? Wolf whistling or making flirtatious remarks to a white woman in a local shop. Emmett Till hailed from Chicago and was known for his playful, irreverent nature. The exact details of what transpired between Till and store owner Carolyn Bryant have long been debated, but it seems that daring to ignore the colour-divide in the Deep South was what led to his killing at the hands of Carolyn Bryant’s enraged husband Roy, and his half-brother JW Milam.
The two men were charged but acquitted by an all-white jury in a trial that became a media sensation. Knowing they had escaped justice, the murderers then sold their story to a magazine, brazenly admitting to having indeed killed the 14-year-old boy. The image of Till’s broken, disfigured body lying in an open casket would become emblematic of the racialised horrors suffered by black Americans in the 20th Century.
The murder of Emmett Till galvanised the Civil Rights movement in the United States. And it was on August 28th, 1963 that the single most iconic moment of that movement took place in Washington DC. This was when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr looked out over the assembled crowds who had marched through the city that day and said 'I have a dream'. The speech contained an incendiary reference to Mississippi, where Emmett had been murdered, which King described as 'sweltering with the heat of oppression'. Yet it’s the messages of hope that have enshrined the speech in the public consciousness – his dream that the citizens of the nation 'will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character', and that 'little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.'
Ava DuVernay’s film captures other August 28ths including 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and brought devastation to African American communities, and 2008 when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination to become President of the United States. But as Oprah Winfrey recently said of the film, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning it wrought on the world, 'as we look back on summer and spring of 2020, it all frees like an August 28.'