Movie Review: The Revisionaries
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Their names might not draw the same number of headlines as gubernatorial candidates, and their coffers don’t contain the riches of U.S. Senate candidates. But the 15 members on the State Board of Education wield an incredible amount of influence (often) outside of the public spotlight.
Lubbock native Scott Thurman’s intriguing documentary, “The Revisionaries,” follows the board in 2009 and 2010 as it makes controversial judgments that will affect the curriculum in Texas schools for years to come.
The movie uses several key people as points of entry into the board’s complicated political and bureaucratic world. Board chair and professional dentist Don McLeroy, a devout creationist who believes dinosaurs walked the earth with man, leads the charge to introduce a “strengths and weaknesses” clause to the teaching of evolution in Texas classes.
Board member and Liberty University law professor Cynthia Dunbar, along with a number of board members from whom we don’t hear much, sides with tea party activist McLeroy. The movie uses video of board hearings and votes to show the debate over science and evolution.
Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller and Southern Methodist University anthropology professor Ron Wetherington serve as the face of the opposition, making the case that students should be taught science. Wetherington believes that the far-right faction of the school board is using deceit to introduce creationism to classrooms under the guise of “intelligent design.”
The straight-forward documentary eschews voice-over, as Thurman presents a mostly balanced view of what will go into Texas textbooks, and by extension, into textbooks around the country because of Texas’ influence. Led by McLeroy, board members also attempt to alter the contents of history books, expunging many historical figures they consider radical humanists and inserting subjective political opinions.
The politicization of the school board’s arguments, influenced strongly by religious beliefs, illustrates how much of the culture war is being waged by proxy in school textbooks.
“The Revisionaries” could have been a bit more compelling and thorough had it included interviews with moderate and liberal board members, as opposed to getting mostly Dunbar and McLeroy’s opinions, though Miller and Wetherington offer strong arguments for the out-numbered opposition.
But the documentary is more than just a reprisal of the difficult fights of 2009 and 2010 that will influence Texas textbooks until 2020. It is a story about the four main figures in the film and how personal the issue has become and how wide the rift is between philosophies surrounding Texas’ public education system.
Thurman does little to impose his personal politics, choosing instead to let the characters and their strongly held beliefs speak for themselves. The result is a portrait of a state at war with itself over how best to handle its most precious commodity – its children.