The intriquing matter of last-minute tweaks.

The intriquing matter of last-minute tweaks. December 27, 2007

I haven’t seen The Great Debaters yet, but I am intrigued by this note that Jeffrey Wells posted at Hollywood Elsewhere:

I’ve noticed an interesting difference between a late work-print version of Denzel Washington‘s The Great Debaters that I saw a few weeks ago and the release- print version that I saw last night at Harvard University. It’s a big change regarding the fate of Nate Parker‘s Henry Lowe character — the most charismatic and gifted Wiley College debater, although one with an occasional weakness for booze and women.

In the work-print version of the epilogue crawl (i.e., the what-happened-to-the- characters info that fact-based dramas often supply), it said that after graduating Lowe simply disappeared — an indication that he may have succumbed to his addictions, etc. It seemed like an interesting call since inspirational films usually pass along uplifting information, blah blah. Lowe is a composite character (i.e., not based on a specific real-life figure) so Washington was free to write any fate he chose. Saying that Lowe didn’t build upon the potential of his early life was, at the very least, against the grain and admirable for that.

But this dark-fate decision, apparently, didn’t go down with research audiences. In the final-release version, it is said that Lowe went into the ministry — an obvious hint that he turned to God and the cloth as a way of controlling his demons. A more upbeat and positive fate, yes, but an indication of a certain artistic flexibility on Washington’s part. This is a small thing I’m mentioning. The Great Debaters is still sharply written, forthright, not sappy, well-shaped. It’s “commercial” and likely to catch on. (Probably.) It’s just that conveying Lowe’s downbeat fate added an interesting counter-shade. . . .

It’s always interesting to speculate about the reasons for minor changes like these. I don’t see many workprints, but I am reminded of a similar tweak that was made to the opening quote from Isaiah in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

In the workprint that I saw at one of those church-based screenings several weeks before the film came out, the quote was dated to 400 B.C. — in other words, it was credited not to the historical Isaiah, who lived in the 700s and early 600s B.C., but to the so-called Deutero-Isaiah who is thought by scholars to have composed the later chapters of that book. This is not a particularly “liberal” idea — theologically conservative evangelicals such as F.F. Bruce have subscribed to this theory — and I was particularly intrigued to see this source-critical date cited in a film by Gibson, who was often derided at the time for his “anti-intellectualism”.

However, in the final version of the film that came out in theatres and then on DVD, the date was changed — to 700 B.C. Did someone tell Gibson his film would do better business if he toed the traditionalist line? Or were there other reasons for the change? And which date does Gibson subscribe to personally? Did his opinion on this matter change between the two versions of the film? It’s a minor point, but intriguing nonetheless.

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  • Anonymous

    Dear Mr.Chattaway:

    Regarding your article entitled, “The Intriquing Matter of Last-Minute Tweaks,” which was a review of the film, “The Great Debaters,” you quoted Mr. Jeffrey Wells’ article from “Hollywood Elsewhere.” Mr. Wells’ article spoke about Nate Parker’s character Henry Lowe and how Mr. Wells noticed “a big change regarding the fate of Nate Parker’s Henry Lowe character.” Mr. Wells goes on further to say, “In the work-print version of the epilogue crawl it said that after graduating Lowe simply disappeared — an indication that he may have succumbed to his addictions, etc.”

    Mr. Wells then says, “Saying that Lowe didn’t build upon the potential of his early life was, at the very least, against the grain and admirable for that.”

    While I find this rather uneducated “guess” of a comment exceptionally suspect and entirely pessimistic, I cannot find any evidence whatsoever to support Mr. Lowe having any kind of “addiction,” let alone “succumbing” to a life of addiction. And to say that “disappearing” into nothingness after such a lofty start at Wiley College, and then praising Denzel Washington for “going against the grain” because he himself did not succumb to writing a “stereotypical” ending for a “composite” character, is in itself just as pessimistic and “dark-fated” as he described Nate Parker’s character could have had for an ending.

    The real problem, however, is not the ending of the “imaginary” or composite character Henry Lowe. No, the real problem is with Mr. Wells’ description of what actually was said of Henry Lowe’s character:
    “In the final-release version, it is said that Lowe went into ‘the ministry’ — an obvious hint that he turned to God and the cloth as a way of controlling his demons.”

    This quotation is exactly and entirely incorrect and wrong. What was actually said in the “epilogue crawl” ending of the Henry Lowe character was that, “he went on to study Theology at the University of California, and became a minister.” That is a verbatim quote of what was said of Henry Lowe in the “epilogue crawl.”

    Strangely enough, there is no mention anywhere, either directly or indirectly, nor is there any evidence of any kind which could even remotely give some “village idiot” the slightest hint that Henry Lowe was dealing with “demons” and was “trying to “control” these demons by turning in the direction of “God” and the “cloth.” I, myself, am a former man of the “cloth,” which really is a description of a Roman Catholic priest, NOT Protestant Minister. Further, if there could be any kind of assumption of Henry Lowe’s character as to why he might have turned to the study of Theology and a life in ministry, is simple. Anyone who has studied or even taken one class in the subject of Theology, would know that the study of forensics, language and/or rhetoric, especially when studying the quintessential Liberal Arts, would know that being on a Debate Team at such a school, would be an excellent even the PERFECT preparation for a life as an orator or pastor who gives homilies at Sunday Mass. The study of the Ancient Classics or the “Great Books Liberal Arts,” which includes the study of language, rhetoric and forensics, especially at a Liberal Arts college such as Wiley during the 30’s and 40’s, was a popular or traditional path for many people at the time. Such a curriculum would be a perfectly normal even logical course of study and preparation for anyone who would want a decent education with the hope of becoming a Protestant preacher or religious priest, monk, friar or nun.

    There is no evidence whatsoever for Mr. Henry Lowe’s character being an addict or alcoholic. Just because someone goes out to get a couple drinks, even getting drunk, after being indelibly impacted and traumatized by witnessing a fellow human being hanged and burnt to death, especially being a Black man seeing a fellow Black man being hanged and burnt, would NOT be a “run of the mill” or everyday event. I highly doubt anyone, even someone such as yourself or even Jeffrey Wells, could resist having a drink, even a few drinks, after encountering and enduring such an ordeal. Don’t forget that it was STILL the “Jim Crow” South, and that most of us today, even fully grown, adult Black people, have thankfully NEVER had to grasp the terror and sheer FRIGHT one might have because of such practices as hanging and burning someone alive, especially because of skin color. No, today we are somewhat relieved to know that while such atrocities have occurred in the VERY recent past here in the United States, these same atrocities are not daily occurrences, and that justice will more than likely be swiftly brought upon such perpetrators.

    I can say this much for myself: if I had to endure, witness and deal with such an traumatic event as a hanging and burning to death of a fellow man, and then be chased by that same lynching MOB in the dark of night, that more than likely I would have to check my underwear for some kind of involuntary, bodily secretion. And, even though I’m a Diabetic and haven’t had any alcohol for nearly 6 years now, (nor should I really have any alcohol), if I had endured such a traumatic event I could almost guarantee you that I would definitely go out that very night and probably have a couple drinks myself. Without a doubt, this does NOT make me an alcoholic, and I highly doubt this would make anyone ELSE an alcoholic if they witnessed the same thing and did the same thing after.

    So, while Mr. Wells entirely misquoted the transcript and the movie, he also pre-judged a situation and a person, and then made a horribly inaccurate and blatantly stupid assumption with no evidence to back up his arrogance, there is NO reason, Mr. Chattaway, as to why YOU had to make a bigger mistake in quoting an idiot. I commend your article and its premise, but I condemn your reference and its source for its inaccuracy and arrogance.

    Oh, by the way, I attended “the” University of California (which is now called the “University of California at Berkeley, aka, “California” or “Cal”), and I also teach there on a part-time basis. I also attended a graduate theology school, and while the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) is on Cal’s campus and many GTU students attend UC Berkeley classes, the GTU is entirely separate and distinctly NOT a part of UC Berkeley in any way. Also, the GTU was NOT in existence in the 1930’s and 40’s, nor were there Theology classes offered at “California” at that time. Once again, someone should have done a better job in research, AND someone should have done a better job in writing the “epilogue crawl” ending.


    Dr. Paul F. Haskell, Ph.D.

  • Anonymous

    Jeffrey Wells makes asinine remarks about people of different classes, ethnic groups, etc.

    He made bigoted remarks about "low-rent" Latinos who he compares to "animals" for speaking loudly and offending his delicate ears. He defends his remarks by saying that he lived in a predominantly Latino neighborhood and is therefore allowed to make such comments.

    His post is here:

    He cannot be relied upon for factual commentary or commentary of any kind. He is a buffoonish character.