Monday, December 31, 2007

The Forensic League--- The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington has only put his hand to directing two movies-- the story of Antwon Fisher, and now The Great Debaters. This one differs from the previous effort in that Washington is also playing a very major role in this movie. The 'Great Debaters' is based on a true story, but with lots of liberties taken. For example, while it is certainly true that the Methodist College, Wiley College in Marshall Texas did have a debating team that went to the national finals in the 1930s, they did not debate the Harvard Crimson-- they debated USC! Furthermore some of the main characters in the film are purely or mostly fictional, including 3 of the Wiley debating team, and this becomes all the more misleading when in the closing credits we hear about their supposed later exploits. Then it would also appear that this was not the first time an all black college had debated a white one, though surely it was one of the first times.

If you want more on the lack of care in researching this film see the review at
by Kam Williams.

Despite all of these missteps, the movie very effectively conveys the central issue the film wants to raise-- namely the besetting sin of racism as it plagued, and still plagues our nation at various profound levels. Both Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker (and a young man named Denzel Whitaker.....hmmm, whose son could he be) put in excellent performances in this 2 hour and 3 minute film, which is beautifully shot and certainly is effectively dramatic.

But I must confess to being troubled by the liberties taken with the truth in this film. If one wants to present us with a story that confronts us with the truth about our racist history, isn't it important to get the story straight whilst doing so? I am less concerned with minor liberties taken, such as adding fictional characters to fill out the drama, but when the central characters themselves are not all representations of real persons, and the closing credits lead us to suppose they are-- then what? What happens is the real courageous story of someone like James Farmer Jr. gets short changed, a man who later went on to make a difference in the battle over civil rights.

I personally found this film moving and poignant as an example of historical fiction. It is rated PG 13 as there are some violent scenes (a lynching), and one compromising situation. But basically this film is worth a family with older children viewing it together as a conversation starter about the issue of racism. The acting is first rate and the range of character depicted is helpful and interesting.

When I was driving home after seeing the film with one other person we were reflecting on the remarkable fact that with all the many and diverse immigrations into and immigrants in this country it is in fact amazing that we have not had more battles between various ethnic groups, and more civil wars over such differences as one group or another jockeys for position in our culture. I do not mean in any way to diminish the struggles we have had, what with the atrocities committed against not only native Americans and African Americans over the centuries. But still-- is there a more diverse country in the world in terms of ethnic diversity? I don't think so. And yet we have bonded and banded together reasonably well on the whole.

It is a good thing indeed that we have been dealing with this issue of racism over the course of the last century. But dealing with an issue, and overcoming the problem are two different things. And many of the mechanisms we are using to correct the problem (such as affirmation action hiring) are inadequate to actually address the root of the problem.

For at the end of the day, at the root of the problem is not mere ignorance, but human wickedness, or as we would put it--- original sin. Information without human transformation is inadequate to deal with such besetting sins. But correct information is a good start. And this film helps in the consciousness raising.

But what is required is not merely an intellectual awakening, or even a spiritual awakening, but a moral renewal of the heart and soul. A heart warming experience which in no way renews and transforms a person's conscience and prejudices on various deep ethical issues, may be chicken soup for the soul, but it is not fully what the Bible refers to when it speaks of a person becoming a new creature in Christ. Look for a moment at Romans 12 and see what the renewal of the mind and life amounts to in Paul's view.


ROD said...

Thanks for the review; I think I'll go see it.

James Pate said...

I don't know--if Christianity/conversion is the solution to racism, why is it that one of the most Christian regions in the country (the South) had institutionalized racism? I just get the impression that many evangelicals see accepting Christ as one's personal Savior as the answer to EVERYTHING.

And, conversely, although there were many Christians like Dr. King who stood against racism, there were also many humanists who did so as well. Isn't that strange, if their old, non-renewed nature should have led them to be racist?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

You seem to be assuming that the only persons in whom God's grace is working are Christians. This is not so. Indeed, no one would be Christians at all if the Holy Spirit hadn't been working on them before conversion. And furthermore, we have lots of partially socialized Christians, who have not worked out the implications of their faith.

Racism in fact is not a sin particular to the South. I remember very well when I moved to New England the severe racism I saw in Boston in the 70s-- shoot, the schools weren't even integrated in 1974 in Boston in various cases, six years after there was compulsory integration of schools in the South.

Happy New Year,

Ben W.

James Pate said...

Thanks for your response.

Right, I know about Boston. I worked in South Boston a few years ago, and people there were still talking about the anti-bussing protests of the 1970's. I have a friend who marched in them.

I know that Christianity teaches against racism, since it says that we should love our neighbor. I guess what confuses me is that many evangelicals act as if one accepts Christ as his personal savior, and then, BAM, he gets a new nature and new desires. And the Bible says that we get a new nature when we become Christian. If that is the case, why should we have to work out anything? If we have a new nature, why do we still have so much of the old?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

New persons living in an old world with old temptations and old fallen culture have much to work out. Being a new creature is the same as being an infant. One has to grow up, and one does not grow up in a perfect world, sadly. One also has to go through progressive sanctification and the internal work of the Spirit after conversion. In other words, conversion is the reorientation and beginning of the new life, it is not it's climax much less its completion. What has happened is the breaking of sin's dominion in one's life, when Christ becomes Lord therein.


Ben W.

Duke of Earl said...

Hi James

I think the old saw, old habits die hard applies here. We are a new creation from the time we pledge ourselves to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, but it takes a while (sometimes a lifetime) to break out of old ingrained habits.

Also your indictment of the American South would be more valid if you compared it with all the other nations on Earth throughout history. The question of course is "is the American South significantly more racist than any other group of people that have ever lived?"

I don't know the answer to that question, but human nature being what it is I wouldn't be surprised to find that discrimination against those foreign to ones own village/tribe/ethnic group is highly prevalent in many societies.

In The Stranger, Kipling offers a justification for that prejudice inasmuch as those of another people group may be fine people, but then they may not be and with a foreigner it's hard to tell the difference.

In the present day this may be less applicable because Americans of African descent share the same culture as those from middle Europe and it should be also noted that said Negro Americans share only skin tone with Negro Africans, they're a different people in terms of the culture they hold to.

As for people using Christianity to justify racism, of course they do. I think it's possible to use the Bible to justify any position provided you aren't too careful about the cultural and textual context of the book. However Paul seemed to hold up a new standard for Christians in his statement that in Christ there was no longer Jew nor Gentile, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female, but Christ is all in all. If I understand the context correctly Paul was reversing a Jewish prayer that thanked God for being born a free Jewish male. I guess that showed that even Jews weren't immune to the belief that their ethnos and culture were superior...

John said...

I followed internet monk over to your blog, and have already added you to my bookmarks. Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful writing.

I do hope, however, that you were being tongue-in-cheek with your rhetorical question regarding Denzel Whitaker's parentage, especially as you decried the film's lackluster research. He's the son of neither Denzel or Forest.

A forgivable offense to be sure, but not without it's own bitter irony. Happy New Year! I look forward to reading more.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi John:

Yes I knew he was the son of either, but it is remarkable, don't you think that he shares the names of both?

Danny said...

I really dislike it when movies are historically inaccurate. I know that they have to change some things to fit it all into an hour movie, but I really think that it needs to be within the general context of that "history" of they are going to call it a true story.


Terry Hamblin said...

We English are used to American films being historically inaccurate. You purloin all our best bits (like U571) then traduce us with imagined crimes (like The Patriot). Stings, doesn't it.