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Monday, August 04, 2008

More Movie Talk

Before I overspent my ass on the weekend, I bought two DVDs: The Great Debaters and There Will Be Blood.

I already hit on the latter earlier on the weekend, but now I'm watching The Great Debaters -- again, during housecleaning breaks today. I was shocked by how much I just loved that film when I saw it Friday.

The movie's about Melvin Tolson, portrayed by Denzel Washington, who was a teacher and a poet influenced by the Harlem Renaissance -- the movement that gave rise to poets like Langston Hughes, who I love -- who taught at Wiley College down south. His debate team in 1935 picked up a tubby little kid named James Farmer Jr, who later became a monster voice in the American civil rights movement, and went on that year to be almost undefeated, and became the first black team to ever debate Harvard. This movie's about that time -- but it touches on brilliant issues of race and politics in the Jim Crow South, and it's so moving and well-acted, and engrossing.

Unlike all the Dead Poets Society/Lean on Me type movies, this one's set in a pretty remarkable political time period, and the era has a huge impact on the theme of the movie.

Me, I've always been interested in race and the struggle of blacks in America. My dad started that interest for me a long, long time ago. When I was 10, he went on a hockey trip to Victoria, came back, and had bought me a young readers' book on slaves and the Underground Railroad to Canada. That did two things for me -- it made me understand how cruel we can be to others just on looks alone, a huge lesson at the age of 10, and it made me love that my country was a safer place for those slaves to escape to. The book blew my mind.

If you check out my shelves these days, you'll see lots of typical white writers, because that's sort of how I roll, but you'll also find the amazing Remembering Slavery book (published in partnership with the Library of Congress -- a monster work) in which slaves told their own stories of their experiences, and several books by South African writers like Andre Brink, and Chinua Achebe, Soledad Brother, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the list obviously goes on.

One of these years, taking an African Studies course would totally blow my mind.

Why? I really don't know what fascinates me, but everything about Africa -- and this horrible story of human trafficking and the social (and physical) repercussions that continue to haunt African-Americans after all these centuries just interests me to no end.

I wonder sometimes if it's because of my very scientific cause-and-effect interest in human behaviour, sometimes, that fascinates me about social struggles like this. I find Adam Hochschild's Unquiet Ghosts: Russians Remember Stalin to be an incredible work, for instance, because it looks at the social climate that lives with the shadows of the past lingering daily.

Like, Hitler -- I know what he did; I understand what happened; I don't need to see WWII shows for the rest of my life to understand the horror of it -- I'm much more interested in the work of people like Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel, because they've been in the eye of the storm, survived it, examined it, and put it into a rearview mirror context before moving on with their lives.

We all endure tragedy and consequence in life; it's how we recover that matters. Or, like the great philosopher Rocky Balboa said, it's about how hard you can get hit, how hard a beating you can take, and still keep fighting your fight. That's life in a nutshell.

But when the system is completely against you, every inhumanity that they can conjure is thrown at you, and all hope seems lost, people can still endure. Look at slavery in America. It's taken more than 100 years, and African-Americans are still fighting to become equal, but look at the beautiful people that struggle has produced. Langston Hughes, Sam Cooke, Martin Luther King... the list goes on and on and on.

I had just not looked into The Great Debaters enough to realize it was a true story that takes place 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement began, nor how political the movie really is.

I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. Perfect movie? No. But damned good.

[Still, I've always been a sucker for the "inspiring teacher" movies -- from To Sir with Love to Dead Poets, I'm just a sucker. :) ]