"The Great Debaters" is an invitation to many things. For me, it is first of all an invitation to the heroism of the Texas civil rights tradition. The example of Professor Melvin B. Tolson’s Wiley College has been close to my heart for about two decades, and it would be difficult to imagine working on civil rights in Texas without regarding Tolson and both of the James Farmers as historical mentors.
Therefore, it was with an excited urgency that I went to see the film, approaching it like a beautifully wrapped holiday surprise. People who have seen the film overwhelmingly agree that it is a beautiful film, lovingly crafted by each artist who took part. In an earlier review of the film (CounterPunch, Dec. 29, 2007), I encouraged following the film’s invitation to actual history.
And yet, some of the artistic choices made by Director Denzel Washington have been questioned, especially his decision to script a climactic debate at Harvard University. In response to my earlier review, one correspondent persists in this line of questioning. It is just too much license. As long as the film lives, no doubt the objection will persist as a talking point. What are we to think about the artistic choice to stage a mythic debate at Harvard?
As the Harvard character says in the film, the debate should be viewed more in the spirit of the future than the past, a quite precise suggestion spoken from within the language of the myth itself, suggesting to the audience how to appreciate the beauty of the setting we see on screen.
Indeed, the entire spirit of the film tosses everything forward into the "always now" where questions of freedom, justice, and equality still live. In one of her several winning moments, Actor Jurnee Smollett emphasizes the point with a compelling stomp.
Denzel Washington's license with Harvard, argues my correspondent, is parallel with the choice of Anne Frank's father as editor of her diaries. In the case of Ann Frank’s father, his decision to excise portions of his daughter’s diary has enabled racists to downgrade its veracity. In the case of Denzel, his decision to stage a dramatic debate at Harvard has allowed critics to question the film's integrity. Is it not true that racists can exploit the vulnerabilities of these choices?
It is historically true that racists have exploited the decisions of Washington and Frank. We know this is the case for "The Great Debaters" already, after only a week on the market. And yet, on the basis of the Anne Frank example, I am more prone to learn something about the wickedness of racism than about the culpability of Washington or Frank.
If it is documentary history you want, please go get it where history resides in the monuments, archives, and testimonials of human memory. And there you should put your history together slowly, patiently, critically. Thanks to "The Great Debaters" I hope we can look forward to a decade or two of historical reconstruction revived.
In "The Parallax View," Slavoj Zizek notices that the documentary form has a way of allowing us to keep a safer distance from life than does fiction. Why has there been so little fiction of the Holocaust he asks? Because it would be too real. In fiction what's most important is that we enter into the heart of the matter. Somehow, he argues, paradoxically and ironically, documentary evidence offers a cooler surface for reflection.
On the screen of "The Great Debaters," Washington turns up the thermostat. What's important in fiction is staying true to the temperature of the truth. And any use of artistic license must be measured according to this standard. As someone who has lived consciously in the afterglow of Tolson's Wiley College, please count me among those who are thrilled that Washington did not allow any chill to settle upon that screen.
But if we must risk looking backward in history as a test of the Harvard setting, then why not ask another question. Why didn't the climactic debate actually take place at Harvard? Well, why not? If the history of Wiley College is graced by revival in the coming years, historians can help us answer the question. Why do I have to use the history of Harvard to measure my art? Why can't I use my art to measure the history of Harvard?
I am gratified to have a reader who is passionate about what history means. But what are the moral and spiritual consequences of the fact that the histories of Harvard and Wiley did not so strongly cross paths until the history of film brought them together in 2007?
I am also indebted to remarks by a columnist from the "Redneck Left." He thinks I shouldn't have used the word redneck to refer to the racist treatment that “The Great Debaters” received at the discussion boards of the Internet Movie Database. After all, there are self-identified "rednecks" who have quite gotten over all that racist crap.
In fact, I agree with my redneck friend. And on this point, "The Great Debaters" stands squarely behind my critic. In the film, we have the figure of two East Texas "rednecks" who play "boy" with a genius who in turn suffers the accidental misfortune of being Black in their racist world order. Yet come midnight a new world order is in the making as those "rednecks" become fellow "sharecroppers" with Black farmers -- a solidarity that is assaulted by power to be reckoned with.
Then it's back to the street in daylight again where the "redneck sharecropper" appears to stand once again on the side of the truly oppressive powers. When Farmer Junior says "you owe my Father some money," he drops a whole trunk of baggage that I won't unpack right now.
The film does not entirely cage the “rednecks” into racist stereotypes; rather, it raises a question. Where will the "redneck" stand? Will he continue playing "boy" with Black genius? Or will he risk solidarity with Black sharecroppers? The language of "The Great Debaters" captures both the ambiguity and the hope of what the term "redneck" means to me.