By Greg Moses
“The Great Debaters” is an invitation to many things. For the Texas Civil Rights Review, it is first of all an invitation to the heroism of the Texas civil rights tradition. The specific tradition of Wiley College and its heroes has been close to my heart for about two decades, and it would be difficult to imagine working on the civil rights project without regarding Tolson and both 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. And people who have seen the film overwhelmingly agree that it is a beautiful film, lovingly crafted by each artist who took part.
And yet some of Denzel Washington’s artistic choices have been questioned, especially his decision to script a climactic debate at Harvard. One of our correspondents persists in this line of questioning. It is just too much license says our reader. As long as the film lives, no doubt this will persist as a talking point. What are we to think about the artistic choice to stage the 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 myth, suggesting to the audience how to appreciate the beauty of the setting we see on screen.
Indeed, the spirit of the film tosses everything forward into the “always now” where the questions of freedom, justice, and equality still live.
Our correspondent asks us to place Denzel Washington’s choices as director in parallel with the choices of Anne Frank’s father as editor. Is it not true that racists can exploit the vulnerabilities of these men’s decisions?
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 this basis I am more prone to learn something about the weakness of racism than about the culpability of Washington or Frank.
If it is 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 think 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, ironically, documentary evidence offers a cooler surface.
On the screen of “The Great Debaters,” the thermostat has been turned up. 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, I’m 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 wasn’t the climactic debate at Harvard in the first place? Well, why not? 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 deeply gratified to have a reader who is a historian and 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 our columnist from the “Redneck Left.” He thinks I shouldn’t use the word redneck to mean “racist” because there are self-identified “rednecks” who have quite gotten over all that racist crap.
On this point, in fact, “The Great Debaters” stands squarely behind my critic. We have the figure of two East Texas “rednecks” who play “boy” with a genius who 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 a force 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 Daddy some money,” he dropped a whole trunk of baggage that I won’t unpack right now.
Where does the “redneck” stand? Is he is the one still playing “boy” with Black genius? Or is he the one risking solidarity with fellow Black sharecroppers? The language of “The Great Debaters” captures both the ambiguity and the hope of what “redneck” means to me.
And while we’re on the subject of “white power”, there is a glorious unstated message in Tolson’s final appearance on screen. Anyone who says “all white folks were portrayed as bad in the film” wasn’t paying very close attention to the redemptions of whiteness that were offered, North and South, as the film carried the audience into the final credits.
So, especially with thanks to my critics, I’m rooting more than ever for this underdog film to take at least one Academy Award, and that’s for Best Director.