Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Great Debaters

I am very wary of recommending movies for others to see.  We all have such different tastes and sensibilities.  If I recommend a movie I think is great and you watch it and think to yourself, "Boy, old Jack has finally lost it," it just makes me feel badly.  Therefore, it is with some trepidation that I am going to skate out onto thin ice and recommend a movie I have seen a couple of times.  Each time as it comes to an end, I have tried to get out of my wheelchair and give those around me a high five.

The movie I am referring to is "The Great Debaters" released in 2007, starring and directed by Denzel Washington.  I am sure that many of you have already seen it. The film, based on a true story, revolves around the efforts of debate coach and poet, Melvin Tolson, (Denzel Washington) at historically black Wiley College to place his team on equal footing with whites in the American South during the 1930s, when Jim Crow Laws were common and lynch mobs were a pervasive fear for blacks. In the movie, the Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University (Actually Hollywood felt a debate with Harvard would be more prestigious than the one that actually took place between the Wiley team and the debate team from the University of Southern California, the reigning champion debate team in the United States in 1935.)
The movie also explores the social milieu of Texas during the Great Depression, including not only the day-to-day insults and slights African Americans endured, but also a lynching. Depicted, as well, is James L. Farmer Jr., who, at 14-years of age, was on Wiley's debate team after completing high school at that tender age, and who would go on to be a powerful figure in the civil rights movement during the 50s and 60s. [The information cited above is from Wikipedia]

Although they were not necessarily the focal point of the story, I was most impressed by James Farmer Sr. and his son James Jr..  James Farmer Sr. was born on June 12, 1886 in North Carolina. After graduating from the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida, he came to Massachusetts on foot to attend college. In 1918 he earned his Ph.D. from Boston University, becoming one of only twenty five African-Americans who held Ph.D.s at the time.  He was the first African-American from Texas to earn a Ph.D. Farmer could read English, Aramaic, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.  He was a good, moral man as well, and tutored James Jr. to follow in his footsteps.  [Information from Wikipedia]

To me, the highlight of the story was the often repeated advice James Farmer Sr. kept giving to his son, James Farmer Jr. when he was tempted to not study or give his best effort as head researcher for the debate team because for many months during 1935-36 James Jr. never had the opportunity of actually engaging in a debate, which was his dream and passion.  In those moments of discouragement his father would say to him, "We have to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do!"

For some reason I can't get that statement out of my mind.  It just rings so true and is very important to me.  "We have to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do!"  So many people, both young and old, have dreams of doing great things -- things they want to do -- but are unwilling to pay the price and do what they have to do each day so they can eventually do what they really want to do.

For example, I suppose every missionary that has had to learn a foreign language can hopefully identify with that statement.  About a hundred years ago when I went to Central America to serve a 2 1/2 year mission, there was no MTC or language training.  We were told to buy a good Spanish College grammar book and bring it with us.  I had visions of speaking fluent Spanish and communicating effectively with the people -- this is what I wanted to do.  To get from where I was to where I wanted to be was a long arduous journey.  Each day I had to do what I had to do to become fluent in a foreign language.  By rising each day between 4:30 and 5 a.m. for months, conjugating verbs, memorizing vocabulary, and spending hours reading out loud from the Spanish Book of Mormon, alongside the English Book of Mormon as well as the Bible, after many long months I was able to do what I wanted to do and dreamed of doing.

This truth of course applies to so many aspects of our lives.  I believe one of the great lessons we hopefully learn early in our lives is that we have to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do -- or more importantly become who we want to be.

My son John is an ER doctor.  He truly did not like his first two years of medical school at USC.  It was all theory and little or no hands-on work with patients that had health problems.  I know there were times he wanted to throw in the towel and maybe do something else with his life.  Finally however, after doing for two years what he had to do, he finally was able to do what he wanted to do -- be a doctor and help people.  He is currently a critical care doctor flying wounded troops from Afghanistan to Germany and after they are sufficiently stabilized, flying them from Germany to Walter Reed Hospital in the United States.  What satisfaction this must give to him to help keep these special people alive so they can get the help they need to improve the quality of their lives.  Had he thrown in the towel prematurely, and not done what he had to do when he had to do it, he never would have been able to do what he really wanted to do with his life.

I'm going to tweak the James L. Farmer philosophy just a bit, but I think in an important way.  My life has taught me that "We must do what we have to do so that we can do what we may have to do."

Life being what it is, full of bumps and detours and curves that we never expected to see, some of us may never really get to do what we wanted to do and dreamed of doing.  However, if we have consistently done what we have had to do, we will be prepared to do what we may have to do when life introduces unexpected, difficult, and mostly unwanted circumstances to us.
Good movie!  Important philosophy!


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