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13 April 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Debating Stereotypes of "The Great Debaters"

Is it OK to promote a stereotype or false assumption if you are black?

That is the question that the movie, "The Great Debaters" indirectly asks. Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington directed and led a cast that included Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker in what is a moving story about the kind of odds faced by a small black school, Wiley College, in the deep South when the Jim Crow laws were in effect.

In the Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Production movie, the team has their greatest moment when they travel North to debate with the Harvard team. Harvard is presented as the bastion of the establishment, the best and the brightest the nation has to offer and, with a very, very white student body. In reality, the Wiley team did not debate against Harvard because the ivory tower of the Ivy League had already fallen. The Wiley team traveled to Los Angeles, to debate with USC in 1935.

In essence, the movie asks the audience to step back into a time that existed, but not at the same time. One Harvard was a leading college in debate. Once Harvard was all white male. Yet that was not the Harvard of 1935. Wiley was founded in 1873 by the Freedman's Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church near Marshal, Texas. In comparison, Harvard was founded in 1636 and is the oldest institution of higher education in the US.

The race barrier at Harvard had been broken by the time Wiley College was founded. According to Mass Moments, Richard Greener was the first African American graduate of Harvard in 1870. He went on to become a lawyer and a foreign service officer.

Compared to these two institutes, the University of Southern California was new. USC opened in 1880 with only 53 students and 10 teachers. It was, for its time, formed by a diverse group of men: a Protestant, an Irish Catholic and a German Jew. According to a 2001 article written for the "Daily Trojan" about black Trojan history, African Americans have been actively involved at USC since 1897. The first African American graduated from USC in 1909. The same article claims that during the Civil Rights era, Southern black families sent their children to USC.

Jim Crow laws didn't reach all corners of the US, as portrayed in another movie, also inspired by historical events and characters, the 2004 "Ray." The absence of different laws based on race in other areas didn't mean there wasn't racial prejudice or segregated neighborhoods and entertainment.

What Martin Luther King Jr. did during the civil rights movement was to bring the South in line with the rest of the nation. People outside of the South were shocked by the conditions and extent of racism yet this didn't answer the problems faced by people in New York--the reality that Malcolm X reacted against. Being able to legally sit at the front of the bus, attend the same college or eat at the same diner didn't mean racism didn't exist in Seattle, Los Angeles or Cambridge. Born in the Midwest (Omaha, Nebraska) and raised in Wisconsin and Michigan, Malcolm X's family experienced harsh treatment, threats and hate crimes perpetrated against them. Martin Luther King Jr's peaceful protests, just as Gandhi's, involved a majority population that was treated as a minority. Malcolm X addressed what it was like for a minority to gain attention and rights.

What kind of place of Los Angeles in 1935? In Los Angeles County, a Georgia-born African American athlete graduated from Muir Tech, now Muir High School, after playing shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, guard on the basketball team and winning awards in the broad jump for the track and field team. That young man would go on to play on various teams at Pasadena Junior College, now Pasadena City College and even, for a short time, play at UCLA. He was the first athlete, black or white, to earn varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. What he would become famous for would be baseball, when he, Jackie Robinson, became a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947.

That was after the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 where some African Americans assisted the Mexican Americans, but before the Watts Riots of August 1965. In 1935, yellow perilism was building up on the West Coast. Racial prejudice was focused on other minorities in Los Angeles and African American were aware of this.

In this respect, the movie, "The Great Debaters" isn't so great in showing the shades of racism that existed outside of the Deep South and outside of the North. Even in 1935, the US was more than North and South and racism came in different shades and affected people of different skin colors.

The script went for the easy win with a plot of black versus white, of new versus old, of small versus big. A better film might have left us questioning the gray areas and seen beyond the landowners and the landless and the North versus the South. Such a simplistic theme harks back to the original Constitution which granted voting rights to landowning white men (landless white men gained the vote in 1856) and to the Mason-Dixon Line of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

In February 2008, "The Great Debaters" won at the NAACP awards for motion picture, best actor in a motion picture (Washington) and actress in a motion picture (Jurnee Smollett). Yet did this movie really serve people of color well?

California was neither North nor South. At the time, legal racism in California didn't focus on the African Americans, yet that doesn't mean racism and racism against African Americans did not exist. It doesn't even mean that African Americans in California or anywhere else aren't racist themselves. Do we really need movies that promote a stereotypes, even if they favor African Americans from the Deep South?

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