Thursday, January 03, 2008

Denzel and Oprah and Willie Lynch

I've seen three new movies in the past month or so: "The Golden Compass," "Legend," and "The Great Debaters."

"The Great Debaters" first: very well-made, with fine performances. I'd recommend it, and I'd see it again. But...

...even as I felt the warm glow that Denzel, Oprah et al. obviously intended for me to feel at the end, it faded a bit when the title card came up stating that James Farmer Jr went on to found CORE, simply because that bit of indisputable fact reminded me that the very touching scene I had just seen was made up, that Mr. Farmer and his team had not debated Hahvahd.

The fact that the Wiley debaters never went up against Harvard - a fact the filmmakers freely acknowledge - raised the question, right in the midst of my good feelings, "How much of this movie should I believe?"

I saw the movie with several family members, and a nephew pointed out that in 1935, no debate team would have been likely to refer to Hitler as the Wiley team does in the movie, for his evil was not yet widely known. He also said that he has long had doubts about the veracity of the Willie Lynch speech that Prof. Tolson refers to in the movie.

I remembered having read something that challenged the truth of the Willie Lynch story, and Googled the name. The earliest reference I found was by a librarian at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

A more complete deconstruction of the speech on the Black Educator website makes it clear that Willie Lynch is a myth.

Given how easy it was to locate this material (Google is flat-out amazing), I find it annoying that neither Denzel nor Oprah nor (apparently) anyone in their employ did the 10 minutes' worth of fact-checking to dispense of Willie Lynch.

At least, I hope they didn't. The more disturbing possibility is that they knew the Willie Lynch story to be not merely a myth, but a myth that probably originated some 60 years after the movie's time period...and inserted it anyway.

I certainly know that movies have historically played fast and loose with history, and accept the genre's convention of adding imagination to fact for dramatic emphasis. But adding outright falsehood in opposition to fact - especially in a movie that is trying so hard to teach us - is another thing altogether (what would Prof. Tolson say?).

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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