Tribeca Film Festival Review “The Revisionaries”

Directed by: Scott Thurman
Producer: Pierson Silver, Orlando Wood, Scott Thurman
Featuring: Kathy Miller, Don McLeroy
Tribeca Film Festival
Running time: 83 minutes

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Before seeing “The Revisionaries”, I would have been hard-pressed to identify a more noxious sound than that of a dentist’s drill at work. I now know that if the dentist behind that tool is also interrogating the patient on their thoughts on god, or badly singing “For the Bible Tells Me So” as he works, the auditory punishment is that much worse. Talk about a captive audience. It’s a perfect introduction to one of this great, often startling, documentary’s most polarizing figures, Don McLeroy, former head of the Texas State Board of Education.

Thurman’s film focuses on this small board, fifteen members in all, because as one of America’s top purchasers of high school textbooks, the standards they approve for the writing of those books dictate what the nation’s students will be reading for the next ten years. Following Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next,” the members of the board have become increasing politicized. Particularly in the realms of science and history. McLeroy enters into the film on the side of the religious far right. A young Earth creationist since he was 29, McLeroy would swear up and down he doesn’t let his personal beliefs enter into his role in education while simultaneously insisting that “science is great, but it doesn’t deserve the plateau [sic] that they put it on”. If it were up to him he would teach kids that dinosaurs walked alongside man and rode on the ark 6000 years ago. There is something profoundly disturbing about a man with, as he described it, a “mind boggling” amount of power chanting to his followers that they must “stand up to the experts!” where education is involved. This type of disgusting anti-intellectualism continues to pervade the political debate today. Just look at failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s recent college-is-for-snobs rhetoric for evidence. McLeroy’s stance is backed by other board members like Cynthia Dunbar, another one who will say at the Board meetings that she’s not pushing a theological agenda, but she’ll start a State board meeting with a Christian prayer. If these peoples’ views, ignorance and downright hypocrisy are all infuriating, to director Scott Thurman’s credit, it’s not through any cinematic trickery that this impression is achieved. Thurman gives McLeroy and his cohorts plenty of screen time in which to calmly lay out their beliefs in talking head segments.

On the other side of the debate is Kathy Miller, leader of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization aimed to stop the hijacking of America’s classrooms for political gain. On her side would be the aforementioned experts such as anthropology professor Ron Wetherington and Eugenie Scott, the executive director at the National Center for Science Education. They’re tasked with having to deal with powerful board members who got there via election, not nearly as much education as the experts needed to get to their respective titles. I suppose that’s what makes them experts. Occasionally debates among the panel actually have to pause to have scientific phrases explained to board members. Thurman’s camera does a brilliant job of capturing the moments of silent shock on some of the more level headed commentators in such instances. Wetherington in particular has a wonderfully expressive face when caught off guard. These slips are in great contrast to the restraint the professor shows when dealing with McLeroy in a one on one debate that gets so overly polite it starts to rival Warner Brothers’ Goofy Gophers.

The first half of the documentary focuses on the hot button debate over evolution, with the right wing side pushing for textbooks to accentuate the “weaknesses” of a “theory.” Such petty wording will have a profound effect that should not be underestimated. For me though, the more startling debate appears in the second meeting we see regarding America’s history books. The Board actually seeks to downplay Thomas Jefferson, only the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and emphasize John Calvin in the founding beliefs of the United States. (Calvin being of the belief in predestined eternal damnation or salvation.) It’s an interesting switch for such fervent self-proclaimed patriots to propose but as said before, these people are no strangers to hypocrisy. It is worth noting that while Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he’s also been quoted many times in connection to religious skepticism. Famously writing to John Adams,“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being…will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva, in the brain of Jupiter.” Thurman does not delve into such motivations behind the voting panel’s anti-Jefferson attitude, but that was not far from this viewer’s mind.

For a film that centers largely on votes taking place in a boardroom setting, “The Revisionaries” is riveting. Particularly in the sequences regarding amendments to history books which can be swiftly proposed, rejected, reworded, and re-spun as entirely new ones at the speed of a tennis volley. Some of the phrase nitpicking and absurdity had me recalling Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire “In The Loop”.  Thurman’s doc is well timed too as November 2012 will see the election of all 15 spots of the Board of Education. Voter turnout for the McLeroy chair as shown in the film was only 20% and hopefully with enough exposure, Thurman’s film can rally more to chime in on this shockingly influential yet tiny group of people. It’s an important film to bring attention to a vote that might otherwise be overshadowed in this presidential election year.

Upcoming TFF Screenings of The Revisionaries:
Wed. 4/25 – 6:00pm, CCC-7
Sat. 4/28 – 6:00pm, AV7-1

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