This Christmas, the film The Great Debaters will come to theaters nationwide. Starring Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey, it tells the story of an award-winning team of debaters from Wiley College, a small, historically black institution founded in 1873 and located in Marshall, Texas. In the 1930s the debate team, coached by poet Melvin Tolson, surpassed nearly every other team in the country in contests against universities as far-flung as the University of Southern California and Oxford. Nonetheless, the Wiley team was never officially accorded championship status because the national debate society of that day did not formally recognize black participation. Though unrewarded then, many of the graduates of Wiley’s debate team went on to become the most eloquently influential movers in the civil rights movement, most notably James Farmer Jr., who founded the Congress of Racial Equality.
Recently the New York Times ran a front-page story titled For Struggling Black College, Hopes of Big-Screen Revival; it was about the effect that the film is having, even before its release, on Wiley College today. Wiley did not fare well through the 1980s and ’90s and came very close to closing. Thanks to the glow of celebrity interest, however, the school’s buildings have been handsomely refurbished, Wal-Mart has promised to set up a scholarship fund and enrollment has suddenly doubled. The Times story ends with a moving description of a young woman about to graduate, of her plans to attend medical school, of the room Wiley has given her to dream.
It’s a feel-good story, no doubt: a very satisfying saga of the aspiring little engine that could, then did–and still had to wait all these years to be heralded for its remarkable accomplishment. It’s also a story that plugs into a deeply iconic American narrative: the battered underdog picked up, brushed off and ultimately saved by the success of the spotlight–and nary a moment too soon. The story is also iconically American in the way it loops between reality and Hollywood dream. The real Wiley College gets legitimated in its educational mission by virtue of a fictionalized representation.
The role of media, particularly the entertainment media, in allowing us to understand our civic life is not to be underestimated. Great actors, great orators and great businessmen draw upon similar thespian skills–it’s what makes them likable, salable, commercial. We Americans shovel money at those who can best perform our fantasies.
I say all this because I’m intrigued by the brouhaha attending Oprah Winfrey’s decision to endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy. The Internet is positively foaming at her decision to campaign for him. Celebrities–from Toby Keith to Sammy Davis Jr., from Barbra Streisand to Jon Bon Jovi–have always stumped for candidates, but a lot of people seem to feel that Oprah is different. She’s not a background singer; she is no mere decorative backdrop. Oprah can turn a book into a bestseller!, fume the blogs. When she lends her magic touch, it’s somehow complicated or even unfair. I suspect that some of the controversy comes from those who like Obama and don’t relate to Oprah’s television persona, or vice versa. But it’s interesting to contemplate: what does it mean that some people are so concerned about whether this particular celebrity ought to express herself in the political realm?
In a very straightforward sense, it’s no wonder that the Double O’s are such an arresting team: one of the world’s most influential black men links arms with the world’s most powerful black woman, and together they sell out an 18,000-seat arena in Columbia, South Carolina, so fast that the computers crash. It’s an unprecedented performance of black power in the heart of the old Confederacy. For someone who lived through the most hateful moments of the civil rights era, it’s exhilarating and hopeful–and vaguely scary in the vertigo it induces.
From another perspective, to many people Oprah embodies a comforting sort of motherly everywoman, whose embrace has been perhaps too comfortably nonpartisan. If some part of her audience felt betrayed when she lost more weight than the average soccer mom, it stands to reason that they’ll feel betrayed when she takes an overt stand in the political realm.
Beyond that, however, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are indeed remarkable for how unstilted they are in the public arena. Like the Wiley College debate team of old, they defy the sideshow of the exceptionally “articulate” colored person. The two of them are our most fluent contemporary orators. They are brilliant speakers, easy with large audiences, and both have a talent for translating hard topics into lucid argument. There’s good reason both Obama and Winfrey are so often described as trustworthy.
In addition, their particular form of raced celebrity enshrines the notion of American mobility at a moment when it is–in reality–sorely vexed. As I observed in an earlier column, Obama radiates a kind of hope that crosses the immigrant epic with a romantic desire for rainbow diversity. Similarly, Oprah is the black, female, Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story of our day. From her humble beginnings as a traumatized little girl, albeit pluckier even than Orphan Annie (we Americans do love “pluck”), Oprah reinvented herself by sheer will and rose against all odds to the very top of the phantasmagorical bubble machine we call the entertainment industry. There’s a general fear of, as well as attraction to, that bubble. Is the celebrity a platform or a dog-and-pony show? Is it serious debate or entertainment? How easy the purchase of cynicism.
But if we’re lucky, maybe something enduring comes of artfully imagining our ideals. Maybe, as with Wiley College, that’s how we escort them into renewed life. Maybe indeed it is not too much to hope that the redemptive power of an intelligent dream might reinvigorate the exhaustion of our embattled political landscape.