Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Oprah Winfrey presents: The Great Debaters (and Mitch Albom)

I had already touched on films that deal with debate on Aug. 19, 2007 on this blog. Christmas Day this year a somewhat more heavyweight film on debate started in theater chains, “The Great Debaters,” directed by Denzel Washington, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s production company (Harpo, her first name spelled in reverse) and The Weinstein Company, with major studio distribution by MGM.

This film gathers momentum as it progresses, and it’s instructive to talk about the ending first (I don’t think it’s a spoiler here), the 1935 debate between Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, a “negro college” according to the terminology of those days of segregation, and Harvard University. Wiley plays this game “on the road” (sounds like NFL playoffs now) and the film shows a steam engine passenger engine train ride through the woods and swamps of the South, headed north and east. (There are a couple of swamp scenes, which could be a reference to Caddo Lake, on the Texas-Louisiana border, the only natural lake in Texas, which has a large number of lakes formed by WPA depression-era-built dams).

The debaters have been forced to write their own arguments, on the affirmative side of: resolved: that civil disobedience is a legitimate form of activism. Earlier, their teacher Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) had made a “we give you the words” speech and said he would write their arguments. Harvard has actually found out about this practice, so it challenges the students to develop their own material – from a stack of books (including Henry David Thoreau ‘s “Civil Disobedience”). Still, each side has to argue one side (like a trial lawyer); this is no exercise in “objectivity”.

Wiley picks its 14-year-old kid James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) who has acted as the team’s researcher (though not wordsmith) to give the argument, which invokes Gandhi as an example. The Harvard boy talks about the rule of law and mixes things up with a homily about the doughboy sacrifices of World War I, and James is able to hit that one out of the park (even on the road – remember Lloyd Bentsen v. Dan Quayle in 1988?) After all, in the Jim Crow south, laws were being ignored and lynchings were common (one is shown in the film) and other laws enforcing segregation would soon (in two decades) have constitutional challenges. (At one point Tolson explains the origin of the word “lynch”).

There is an earlier debate where the white team tries to argue that integration should not be attempted because it will foster disorder – the same kinds of “blame the victim” or “heckler’s veto” arguments that were used to keep the military segregated (until Truman in 1948) and today are used to justify “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military.

The rest of the story deals largely with Tolson’s difficulties – his activism with unions and sharecroppers gets him in and his team in trouble, and James’s dad (Forest Whitaker) tries, for a while, to keep his son out of the running. We see a lot of paradox: African American children aiming for the American dream in the Depression era 1930s in the south, trying to verbalize their way out of their disadvantage, and yet being told what and how to argue.

The film looks grand. It is in widescreen, full 2.35 to 1, and the visual environment of the 30s is recreated well. At the end, an audience in Arlington VA (about 30% of the audience was African American) applauded.

Harpo films also recently produced the TV baseball movie “Mitch Albom’s For One More Day” for ABC (aired Dec. 9) in which a “failed” baseball player reviews his life while being united with his deceased mother, in order to get the will to live.

In 2004/2005, Winfrey (and Harpo Films) produced "Their Eyes Were Watching God," based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston, which is often assigned reading in high school English classes. The story concerns a young African American women Janie Starks (played by Halle Berry) whose behavior with men confounds the social norms of the 1920s, which were not necessarily limited by race. The DVD is is 1.37:1 (maybe because this is a TV film for ABC), which means that some sense of space and breadth is lost, especially in the outdoor scenes toward the end around Florida's Lake Okeechobee, and especially during the hurricane. Janie says that her eyes are watching God as the storm approaches. It will lead to a fitting tragedy.

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