Part Three: Plato Reviews The Great Debaters
This is a coming of age film of the North American African Nation. It is about a people regaining their consciousness after decades of obscurity. This film puts them back properly in the time and space of history, for they present themselves as a civilized people, the children and the adults, thus making it a movie on the goodness of life and the power of consciousness to reveal the very best of a people, thus regaining their self respect before the world community. It shows the intelligence and leadership of American African youth-- of adult leadership and intelligence as well, including the radical activist tradition in North American African History.
Every North American African, every Pan African, can be proud that Oprah Winfrey and Denzil Washington produced this. Perhaps we have reached that moment in time when our people have no choice but to be their true selves, their best selves.
For the first time in a long time, we see the intellectual genius of a people during the turbulent 1930s. This should be a lesson to all North American Africans that we have a dignified liberation tradition to uphold, thus we cannot sink into the morass of today, but in the manner of this film, take a great leap forward into dignity, respect, and intelligent behavior.
As a people, we must be proud of the young performers in this drama. They have exhibited the very best in us as human beings, as African people. The children teach us and themselves in this movie. They teach us the worst in human consciousness with their remarks on a lynching.
They repeatedly show us the power of using the black mind for intellectual dexterity rather than barbarity and expressions of animal consciousness.
This film is in the genre of Akila and the Bee, except that it goes deeper socially, intellectually, historically and spiritually. While it reveals the utter racism and white supremacy of this nation, it also depicts the resistance and transcendence to this unique American evil, especially in the present era.
The music is excellent, the visuals as well, including the acting and dance, giving us a sense of the ritual life of our people during the 1930s. The young character Henry who became a debater after a riotous life is exemplary and a clear example to other wayward youth struggling to survive in the hoods of America. You can come up if you get up! Yes, it takes energy: the same energy it takes to stay down it takes to get up!
Denzil Washington must be given kudos for his role as Melvin Tolson, the great poet of our people. Denzil proves his acting ability in presenting Tolson as the intellectual/activist, a tradition often represented by the artists/activists of the 1960s. But in the character of poet Tolson, we see the roots of the Black Arts Movement artist/activism that would emerge in the 60s with Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure,Larry Neal, Marvin X, Haki Madhubuti, Ed Bullins, June Jordan and others. But this tradition had its origins in the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s, and the poets, writers, and artists of the 30s, 40s and 50s, from Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Sterling Brown, Gwen Brooks, Ralph Ellison and others.
Forest Whitaker as the senior James Farmer maintained a certain dignity early on that his character revealed late in The Deacons, his character kept its self respect when confronted by white racists after he accidentally ran over their hog. This scene is a survival lesson for young black men. I tell young black men on the street and in the schools and colleges that they must pass the tone test when confronted by police: depending on their tone of voice, they can be killed, arrested or released.
But imagine, so-called Negroes having an intellectual debate, even a team of debaters with a coach who apprises them on the Willie Lynch syndrome, who tells them straight out white supremacy has them insane, thus confirming the sister who says it is not white supremacy but white lunacy, thus we are victims of an insanity far beyond the economic implications. I love James Baldwin’s quote, “It’s a wonder we haven’t all gone stark raving mad,” dealing with white supremacy for four hundred years. The Debaters is a hopeful sign that we can and shall overcome, that we can and shall regain our sanity.
Dr. Marvin X’s recent book is HOW TO RECOVER FROM THE ADDICTION TO WHTIE SUPREMACY, Black Bird Press, POB 1317, Paradise CA 95967, $19.95. It is now a textbook in the English Department at Berkeley City College.
“He’s the new Malcolm X! Nobody’s going to talk out loud about his book, but they’ll hush hush about it. It’s very straight and plain. They talked about the things I wrote in my book, but wait til you read Marvin’s.”
--Jerri Lange, author of Jerri, A Woman’s Life in the Media