Thursday, December 27, 2007

henrietta bell's role gets great review

Washington Post movie critic Stephen Hunter raves here about 'The Great Debaters,' the film that offers a fictionalized account of the Wiley College debate team. Hunter especially notes the performance of Junee Smollet, who plays a character based on Henrietta Bell Wells, the lone woman speaker on the debate team:
...the movie belongs to Smollett. There's such passion and pain in her performance. She plays a woman named Samantha Booke, who wants to be Texas's third practicing African American female lawyer. She's dignified, but her hold on dignity is precious; she's brilliant, but her confidence in her mind is trembly; she's beautiful but won't let it go to her head; she's vulnerable, though she tries to hide it. And she's fantastic, particularly in convincing you how, though assailed by doubts, clouded with emotion and racked with fear, she finds a voice that's musical in its purity. If they should ever make a movie of Anne Moody's great memoir "Coming of Age in Mississippi" (and I hope they do), Smollett is the actress for the lead role.
We're delighted that so many visitors to this blog have come via searches for "Henrietta Bell Wells" in the movie's wake.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

can you cry in public? it depends

That double-edged sword of seeming too feminine and emotional when speaking in public gets aired again today in Associated Press coverage of politicians and whether they can cry in public, even today. Crying in public caused controversy for presidential candidate and Senator Edmund Muskie in 1972 and for Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who shed tears 20 years ago when she announced a decision not to run for the presidency--and is still criticized by women for doing so. Schroeder describes the double standard in the AP article:
'Guys have been tearing up all along and people think it's marvelous,' Schroeder said, pointing to episodes stretching back to Ronald Reagan. But for female candidates, crying clearly is still in the no-fly zone....Clinton may shed no tears on the campaign trail. The same people who complain that she is cold and unemotional would seize on it as a sign of weakness and vulnerability, says Schroeder. 'For some reason,' she says, 'we still are a little nervous for women.'
Other examples in the article include Reagan, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and current candidate Mitt Romney, who shed tears twice this week on the campaign trail. Do you agree with Schroeder's view?

swinging a double-edged sword: image

Women who speak publicly wield a number of double-edged swords, challenges unique to the gender in the public arena. We have the ability to wear a more varied wardrobe, rather than a uniform suit; to alter our hair and use makeup to enhance features and focus our appearance; and to use color in our clothing and accessories to draw the eyes of our audiences. The other edge? Those advantages multiply women's opportunties to stumble in public appearances, and the attention these advantages draw isn't always positive, or substantive. Often, it's used against us to silence our voices.

But there's no greater conundrum for eloquent women than the persona they choose to project: Should you be tough and authoritative or feminine and approachable? This week, presidential candidate and Senator Hillary Clinton's running into the familiar other edge of the sword as she rolls out a "likability" campaign in the final weeks before the Iowa caucases. The New York Times looks at the new campaign today:
For much of this year, the Clintons concentrated on arguing that Mrs. Clinton was tougher and better prepared than Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards, a posture intended not only to appeal to voters who wanted a tested leader but also to persuade them that a woman was strong enough to be commander in chief....Inside the campaign, the communications director, Howard Wolfson, has been well known for urging that the humanizing effort start earlier, but the campaign decided to emphasize strength and experience instead. Now some voters and advisers wonder if her camp waited too long to address Mrs. Clinton’s personality.

At several of her campaign events recently, Iowans, even some of her own supporters, publicly asked if she was likable enough to win, and some noted that people found her “cold” and “remote.”
In the Times opinion pages today, Maureen Dowd weighs in on this "rush to judgment," noting:
When men want to put down a powerful woman in a sexist way, they will say she’s a hag or a nag or a witch or angry or hysterical...But some conservative pundits who disagree with a woman on matters of policy jump straight into an attack on the woman’s looks or personal life.
Twenty years ago, Kathleen Hall Jamieson's Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking pinpointed the shift in tactics by male politicians--notably Ronald Reagan--who adapted their public personas to television by employing a more feminine, personal communication style. At the same time, she noted:
...the double bind in which television traps a female politician. The [manly] style traditionally considered credible is no longer suitable to television. But only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak....Two ironies result: only to the extent that they employ a once spurned 'womanly' style can male politicians prosper on radio and television; meanwhile, in their surge toward political equality, women abandoned and must reclaim the 'womanly' style.
Senator Clinton's struggle to do so has been going on for some time, as Dowd points out:
Hillary doesn’t have to worry about her face. She has to worry about her mask. Back in the ’92 race, Clinton pollsters devised strategies to humanize her and make her seem more warm and maternal. Fifteen years later, her campaign is devising strategies to humanize her and make her seem more warm and maternal.

The public still has no idea of what part of her is stage-managed and focus-grouped, and what part is legit. It’s pretty pathetic, at this stage of her career, that she has to wage a major offensive, by helicopter and Web testimonials, to make herself appear warm-blooded.
For politicians--and for public speakers--it's a reminder that women's instincts for personal, warm and intimate communications styles don't need to be put away in favor of strident speaking styles. And audiences have a collective nose for sniffing out inauthentic styles and the underlying discomfort of the speaker. I'm put in mind of my favorite writer, the eloquent Virgina Woolf, who said in A Room of One's Own, "It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly." What are your experiences with this double-edged sword in public speaking?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

you just can't say you won

Today's New York Times looks at Wiley College, home of "The Great Debaters" team described below, and how it has fallen on hard times until the advent of the movie. The article notes a poignant detail left out of the movie:
...even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they did not belong to the debate society, which did not allow blacks until after World War II.
You can go here to see a reprint of a Wiley College photo of some of the original debate team; unfortunately, it does not include the lone female member, Henrietta Bell Wells.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A woman among "The Great Debaters"

Speechwriting colleague Jeff Porro now has a new movie's story to his credit--and it offers a look at a groundbreaking female debater, Henrietta Bell Wells (UPDATE: Find out more about Henrietta in these additional posts about her.) The forthcoming film The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, looks at the first black college debate team to participate in and win interracial debates in the 1930s. The Wiley College varsity debate team broke gender as well as racial barriers with professor Melvin Tolson's selection of Wells (then Bell), the team's only woman, depicted as the fictional "Samantha" in the film by Jurnee Smollett. Porro, who interviewed Wells to develop the movie story, said in an interview:
She said when she was a freshman in 1930, Tolson picked her and he said she was the first girl that he ever let try out. She was on the varsity team. She said "He thought I could think on my feet."
The movie looks at a form of debate now considered old-fashioned, Porro says. "What's now the standard in debating is pretty non-interesting for non-experts. The classic debate is not nearly as popular as it used to be, so I'm hoping this movie gives it a rebirth," he says, noting that the style--and Tolson's method--calls for the speaker to "think on your feet and give a well-prepared presentation, rather than just spew out a bunch of facts."

The movie shows the Wiley team winning again and again when pitted against white debating teams, culminating with a major debate at Harvard (one that the university couldn't actually document). The real barrier was broken at a 1930 debate in Chicago, opposite the University of Michigan--the first interracial college debate. Wells told Porro her memories of the event:
She said she felt so small on that big stage in Chicago, but determined that to make it, 'I had to use my common sense." And she recalled that Tolson wanted the debaters to be very proper and formal. He had her wear a dark suit and cut her hair in a boyish bob. My impression from talking to her was he didn't want to give the white audiences any chance to dismiss them, to get rid of any stereotypes they might have. And Tolson insisted there be a chaperone for her. They went to Chicago, they did a tour with Fiske College to Pine Bluff, Ark, and to Houston, which was exciting for Henrietta because that's her hometown.
Porro notes that Wells only debated for that one year, then dropped off the team. "She had to work three jobs...at the end of the season she stopped debating because she had to be off campus a long time, but she did dramatics and kept up with that. Tolson was involved in that dept as well."

Tolson's teaching and coaching of speakers may seem remarkable to us today, and not just for its societal advances, but its content. In an article about Tolson for the National Council of Teachers of English, David Gold notes that:
At many private, black liberal arts colleges, the classical liberal arts tradition persisted well into the 1920s, with Latin and Greek retained as part of the standard curriculum long after such courses had been dropped from the requirements at elite white schools. Oratory, moved to the periphery of the curriculum elsewhere, continued to play an important role; speechwriting was frequently incorporated into freshman composition courses, and debate and drama were enormously popular campus activities.
Gold goes on to quote Wells--at 95, the last surviving member of the debate team featured in the movie--about Tolson's strict methods:
“You didn’t dare turn in an essay with a spelling mistake,” says Henrietta Bell Wells who listed him as the school’s “crabbiest teacher” in her 1931 yearbook but still counts herself as “a disciple of Mr. Tolson....He would walk in the door. ‘Bell! What is a verb!’ And you’d better know. He was hard on his students. They were scared, but when they got out, they knew English....“You couldn’t shock him,” says Wells, “but he would often shock you.”
Wells went on to become a social worker, and teammate James Farmer, Jr. won fame as the leader of the Freedom Marches during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Porro, who found the Wiley College debaters' story in a magazine article, and recalls, "When I saw the name James Farmer, that made me stop--I had seen him when I was a 17-year-old freshman at Berkeley. It was a demonstr about free speech, and this guy was the most articulate human being I've ever heard. He was like a Shakespearean actor with a deep rolling voice and an eyepatch. So when I read about this story about his being on a team that debated white universities, I knew it had to become a movie." (Photos by David Lee, The Weinstein Company)