January 19, 2008

The Great Debaters; or The Sea-Turtle and the Shark

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When I posted James McMurtry's brilliant and savage "We Can't Make It Here" on FotM a bit ago as something to consider in evaluating the effects of imperial privilege on the working class in the US, I said McMurtry was "arguing the negative (yeah, I just saw The Great Debaters--don't miss it)."

Sure enough, a couple friends asked, "What's The Great Debaters?" It is, for my money, the purest feel-good movie since 2002's The Quiet American. If a film based on the exploits of a Communist professor who trained a championship debating team at a small Black college in Texas in the '30s while secretly organizing for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union doesn't sound appealing to you, maybe you should give it a miss. Otherwise, catch it while it's still in the theaters!

To pique your interest further, here is a poem about a higher stakes debate by the real Professor Melvin B. Tolson (played in the film by Denzel Washington), actually a section of his book-length poem Harlem Gallery, published the year before his death in 1966.

The Sea-Turtle and the Shark
by Melvin B. Tolson

Strange but true is the story
of the sea-turtle and the shark-
the instinctive drive of the weak to survive
in the oceanic dark.
riven by hunger
from abyss to shoal,
sometimes the shark swallows
the sea-turtle whole.

The sly reptilian marine
into the shell
of his undersea craft,
his leathery head and the rapacious claws
that can rip
a rhinoceros’ hide
or strip
a crocodile to fare-thee-well;
inside the shark,
the sea-turtle begins the churning seesaws
of his descent into pelagic hell;
then . . . then,
with ravenous jaws
that can cut sheet steel scrap,
the sea-turtle gnaws
. . . and gnaws . . . and gnaws . . .
his way in a way that appalls-
his way to freedom,
beyond the vomiting dark,
beyond the stomach walls
of the shark.

I was introduced to Harlem Gallery by my friend Chuck Colding in 1967, so when "The Sea Turtle and the Shark" played a small role in the emergence of the New Communist Movement in the U.S., I recognized it. FotM offers a cool historic prize to the first person to identify that role in the comments section here. Just click on the word "comments" directly below.


Magnus said...

I got to see this movie recently, and I never thought I'd enjoy a movie produced by Oprah Winfrey so much!

It made me very curious about this debate teams - I don't think I've really understood what it is about yet.

Anonymous said...

Debate is a sort of speech duel. The word can mean simply arguing, but in the movie, they are engaged in a formal competition. There are two teams, the affirmative and the negative. There is a resolution, something like "resolved, that the Federal, not state government, should prosecute lynchings." The affirmative gives a rap of about 8 minutes in favor of the resolution, the negative responds for 8 minutes, and then each team gives about a couple 4 minute rebuttals. (Format can vary.) A judge(s) chooses the winner based on quality of evidence, presentation, and analysis. In the U.S., high schools and colleges hold debate tournaments among multiple schools, like a track meet. In the movie, the debates were oriented towards a lay audience. In today's competitive American debate, the speakers move incredibly fast, and speak in jargon unpenetrable to outsiders.

Magnus said...

Thanks Bill! Are there any good examples of such debates online?

Anonymous said...

I dunno Mag, try utoob.

Joe Iosbaker said...

"The Sea-Turtle and the Shark" appears in the original Red Papers published by the Revolutionary Union.

Jimmy Higgins said...

Ding! Ding! Ding!

We have a winner!! Joe has correctly identified the back cover of the influential Red Papers 1, one of the most significant documents of the early NCM, as the place where Melvin Tolson's "The Sea-Turtle and the Shark" was reprinted.

His prize will be forwarded to him shortly.