Volume 77 / Number 32 Jan. 9 - 15, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Koch On Film

By Ed Koch

“Juno” (-)
Many showings of this film have sold out. Apparently it is a crowd pleaser, but I found it to be an empty movie.

The principal character is Juno (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old pregnant girl. The father of the baby is her high school friend, Paulie (Michael Cera). They are both nice kids who simply went too far.

The question is, what now? Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. Her father, (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney), eventually support her decision. The adopting parents, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), have personal problems of their own.

Is there an age when most parents would agree that an abortion is preferable to putting a child through an entire pregnancy? I know what I would do. Do you? I don’t have strong feelings about this movie other than to conclude it trivializes an important subject.

“The Great Debaters” (+)
From the very first scene in this movie the audience roots for one debate team, even as it is forming, as well we should in the context of fairness.

Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a poet and English Professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The year is 1935. He believes that one way to put this small, all-black institution on the map, so to speak, is to create a debate team capable of competing with larger, well-known white universities. He holds tryouts and selects four students for the team: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). The Wiley team ultimately defeats the Harvard debate team and wins the championship.

During the film, we are reminded of the terrible racial and social conditions that existed in the south at the time, the least of which — but so demeaning — were the separate facilities including drinking fountains required by law for blacks and whites. Undoubtedly, such injustices were injurious to the pride, psyche and self-confidence of blacks. Much worse were the physical abuses that blacks endured which are also depicted in this film. While traveling on the road late one night, the debate team witnessed the lynching of a black man by a white mob, causing the team to flee for their lives. A second scene involved a preacher, James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker), who accidentally hit and killed a hog on the road. He is humiliated and threatened by two white farmers and rightly fears for his life. The scene is witnessed by his family inside the car, including his son, James Farmer, Jr., who as an adult founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the great vanguard civil rights organizations.

In addition to teaching and organizing the debate team, Professor Tolson hoped to organize a union for black and white sharecroppers. His actions provoke the white establishment, in particular the local sheriff (John Heard). Vigilantes and law enforcement officers beat up those attending the union meeting.

The movie is a docudrama, and some facts were changed to make the script more interesting. The Wiley College debate team actually defeated a team from the University of Southern California, not Harvard, to win the championship. Every actor in the film does a good job in his/her role. Go see this picture. It will make you feel good and at the same time provide an important lesson in the horrors of segregation and what it did to blacks and whites in our country.

HS said: The movie was a fascinating view into Southern life in 1935. In one scene, a woman stands waiting for a bus because the bench is marked: “Whites only”. Blacks seem to live at the sufferance of white bullies, who break up a meeting and burn down a barn where a college professor is trying to organize sharecroppers. The debating team is like a football team in an ordinary sports movie. In 2008, most Americans don’t realize how bad segregation was before World War II. One thing I noted was how polite and deferential the black kids were to their parents. Their families were solid. This movie is worth seeing, for young people in particular, as a history lesson. But it is more than that — it is a study of overcoming obstacles and achieving a goal once thought impossible.

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