Tell Them We Are Rising 2: The Great Debaters

Posted on January 21st, 2008 by

Continuing the theme from the previous post, read this Salon review of “The Great Debaters”, one of the characters of which is an African-American professor of classics and theology. Here’s an excerpt:

About midway through Denzel Washington’s new film “The Great Debaters” comes a raw and terrifying scene that exemplifies why the movie’s worth seeing, despite its hackneyed and awkward story. It’s the mid-1930s in rural east Texas. James Farmer Sr. (played by Forest Whitaker), a classical and scriptural scholar who was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Boston University, is driving along a dirt road with his family. Distracted by some children along the roadside — who are excited to see such a nice car, let alone a car driven by a Negro — Farmer accidentally kills a hog that has wandered into the road.

The hog belongs to a white farmer, a man decidedly poorer and vastly less educated than Farmer, and at one stroke the ominous racial reality of the Jim Crow South comes into focus, even for one of its most respected and successful black residents…

This well-dressed college professor — a “town nigger,” as one of the white men puts it — must shuck and jive, must “yessuh” and “nossuh” a couple of overall-clad illiterates, must tolerate being addressed as “boy” and must pay a grossly inflated price for the dead hog. The penalty for doing otherwise? We don’t need to spell that out. Maybe the dirt farmers would have been content to beat and rob Farmer, and maybe they’d have felt like taking it further. That would have been up to them, but no crime committed against the Farmers, from mild to vile, would ever have been investigated or prosecuted. In a situation where he has no rights, Farmer sees that it’s no moment for righteous defiance.

Behind the mask of this apparently benign story about kids who beat the odds, and the birth of the birth of the birth of the civil rights movement or whatever, there’s an angrier and much more interesting movie about the ugliest aspects of American history, about the classics professor and the pig farmer, about stuff that bedevils us to this day.

Watch the movie the first chance you get and pay attention to some carefully chosen classics references.


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