My wife and I have been on maybe 3 or 4 “dates” over the past year, between the ages of our kids and our somewhat rigorous schedules. Mostly we content ourselves with our in-house down time once we get the kids to sleep – assuming they stay asleep. When we visit the Bay Area we have the grandparent option which we took advantage of last night. After an afternoon at the Exploratorium (the most crowded I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime) we dropped the kids off at my mother’s and went out for dinner and the second movie I’ve been to all year, simple pleasures often denied by the needs of parenting in a community where available babysitters are far and few.
Some years ago I had a terrific dinner at an old restaurant in the Marina District of San Francisco called Izzy’s. Recently I’d noticed an establishment of the same name as I drove by Corte Madera on 101. Yesterday a quick Internet study revealed that it was the same business, or at least the same menu, and so we made reservations (wasn’t necessary). Their specialty is steaks cooked to perfection, but they’re also famous for their patented sides such as scalloped potatoes and surprisingly flavorful creamed spinach. I missed the old city feel of the SF restaurant, but the food was as I’d remembered it. It’s not cheap, but not off the wall either (though I’d be just as happy with a good steak at House of B or OH’s for a few bucks less and in doggy-bag proportions).
Afterwards we headed up the road to the Northgate mall for a movie at a shocking $10.25 per ticket. I let my wife choose the movie and she was gracious enough to let me choose between The Great Debaters and P.S. I Love You (I think she offered the latter as a joke). I don’t have time for a complete review right now. It’s not a Dreamworks movie, but it’s pretty much a clone along those lines – complete with an uninspiring inspirational score, gorgeous if cookie-cutter cinematography, and big name cast no doubt “honored” to have been paid big bucks for such a worthwhile endeavor. Denzel Washington (they don’t make movies without Denzel Washington anymore) played the part of a union organizing professor at Texas’ Whitfield College in this “inspired by a real story” account of the first black debate team allowed to compete with white colleges including ultimately Harvard. It takes place at the height of the Depression (there are a few Hoovervilles along the rail lines to remind you every once in a while) and is complete with obligatory references to Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Dubois (who sounds more like Booker T. Washington as quoted in the film, a rich piece of irony that would be greatly appreciated by the poet Dudley Randall), figuring that maybe an eighth of the education system victims watching might recognize at least one of those names.
Okay, it was well done and all that, avoiding some of the Goodwill Hunting/Finding Forrester cliches. The young James Farmer (founder of the Congress of Racial Equality which decades later would fall victim to the hands of right wing hacks like Roy Innis) clinches his team’s debate victory over Harvard the “resolved” topic being civil disobedience. Having exhausted Gandhi and Thoreau, he finishes with a poetic license “inspired by a true story” account of his team’s witnessing of a lynching with “I have a right and even a duty to resist the law with violence or civil disobedience. Pray that I choose the latter.” He brings to their feet all the enlightened white Bostonians so different from the southerners, because we know Boston’s never had racial problems, right? It’s also noteworthy that in real history they never debated Harvard, probably because Harvard was not the national champion that year. They debated the USC team, which was. They did win the debate however. There are other historical liberties taken (I don’t think Farmer was actually on that team), but actually who cares?
The movie unfortunately ignores the actual basis on which debate competition is won. For some reason the Whitfield College team always got to argue positions which they felt deeply about (it would have been much more interesting to see the arguments about integration reversed when they debated white teams), which seems like an unfair advantage to me.
But it’s well produced, well acted, and guaranteed to make white people feel good about how much progress they’ve made over the decades. What else can an almost-all white liberal Marin audience ask for?
And it wasn’t P.S. I Love You.
I should note that my wife is rolling her eyes at my “review.” She likes the film, and I’m probably being a little too cynical for a gorgeous Sunday morning.
Addendum: Here’s the Wikipedia excerpt on historical incongruence.
As part of their tour, Wiley College’s debate team defeated the reigning champions—not Harvard as in the movie, but the University of Southern California‘s team—on the USC campus in Bovard auditorium.In addition, according to the New York Times the “film omits one reality: even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they were not truly considered to belong to the debate society, But blacks were not truly allowed until after World War II.” The movie also explores the social milieu of the American South during the Great Depression including not only the day to day insults and slights African Americans had to endure, but also a lynching. James L. Farmer, Jr. (played by Denzel Whitaker, no relation to Forest) ), who was on Wileys’ debate team at 14 years old after completing high school (and who would later go on to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality) is also depicted. According to the Houston Chronicle, another character depicted on the team, Samantha Booke, is based on the real individual Henrietta Bell, “the only female member of the 1930 debate team from Wiley College who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States.” Also, according to the Marshall News Messenger, “there is no evidence that a debate with Harvard ever happened…. the debate Bell remembers was probably with Oxford University of England.”
And I thought I’d share an excerpt from the SF Bay Guardian review, lest you think I’m the only one with the “cynical” review:
The film is shot through with the horrors and humiliations of the Jim Crow era, the depiction of which is genuinely moving despite the undermining influence of the stagy and often heavy-handed direction. Debate seems like a singularly ridiculous subject for melodrama, since it’s bound by certain rules of logic that are designed to ward against the kind of emotional appeals that The Great Debaters is all about. In fact, Tolson spells out many of these rules in the beginning of the film, only to sit approvingly by while his team perpetrates so many logical fallacies that they’d make a great drinking game. This movie should make Washington and producer Oprah Winfrey a lot of money.