Editor’s note: The Revisionaries opens on 26 October at New York’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, as well as theaters in Austin and Los Angeles.
“Open a little wider. Hey Michael, you ever thought much about evolution, the idea that we all share a common ancestry with that tree out front?” A dentist as well as a pastor, Don McLeroy has his hands inside a patient’s mouth as he poses this question, then answers it for himself. “I think it’s quite a big claim that people make, you know. I’m a skeptic myself. There’s no way.”
As earnest as McLeroy may be, this early scene in The Revisionaries is unnerving in any number of ways, not least being the camera’s hovering close to McLeroy looming over his patient and anticipated convert. As Scott Thurman began filming, McLeroy was still a member of the Texas State Board of Education, and rather infamous as such. The film shows him in various positions of daunting power, insisting that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs (and that a “plenty big” ark made room for two of every creature, including Brontosauri) and, when asked by a TV interviewer whether he once said that the extent of his power on the School Board “boggles [his] mind,” he says yes, but “Sometimes I wish I didn’t say that.”
And still, the boggling goes on. The film charts the inspiration SBOE Chairman McLeroy provides for other board members, like Cynthia Dunbar (who served from 2007-2011), as they insist that science classes in Texas teach intelligent design, given that evolution is just a “theory.” The “power” here has to do with Texas’ influence on textbook selections around the nation: it has to do with numbers, as textbook publishers endeavor to serve (profit from) those schools ordering the most books. Well aware of this power, the Texas School Board creationists in the 1980s made a case for teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution: this language is challenged in 2008, and The Revisionaries follows the battle between McLeroy’s Republicans and a set of opponents, including Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education and Steve Schafersman, of Texas Citizens for Science.
The SBOE hearings make for remarkable tension here. When SBOE member Ken Mercer contends that Scott, for instance, is opening the door for the teaching of “evolutionary fraud,” she agrees that such history is useful to teach, just “like you can teach examples of political chicanery.” The camera cuts from Mercer’s face to Scott’s and back again, while you can hear other hearing participants and audience members chuckle and gasp.
While the arguments become tense and frankly, preposterous (Stephen Colbert offers a brief introduction in a bit from The Colbert Report, indicating both their significance and peculiarity), the film also suggests what’s at stake in this seemingly arcane debate, that is, young students. The creationists are clear enough about how they see the classroom as a means to shape future generations’ thinking (and religiosity and righteousness). The film offers as well elementary school science teacher Stephanie Klenzendorf, who appears in her classroom early on: enthusiastic, warm, the sort of teacher you’d love to have, she engages her students in a discussion. When one resists the very word “evolution,” setting it in stark opposition to the Bible, she suggests another way to think about it: “Evolution doesn’t mean you can’t have religion,” she says. In an interview that follows, she explains, “The bottom line is students need to know the science of evolution and they need to be able to ask questions.”
This idea, that asking questions is good, sounds like McLeroy’s own stated position in his dentist’s office, that he’s “a skeptic.” But The Revisionaries indicates otherwise, that reading the Bible literally shuts down the possibility for questions. The documentary provide interviews with several individuals, and each takes the opportunity to support his or her position; some also argue against the opposition. Ron Wetherington, Physical Anthropologist & Director of Graduate Studies at Southern Methodist University, calls the creationists “masters of deceit,” in that they manipulate language, claiming they’re making a case for “freedom” rather than constraint. His opponents, of course, charge the “scientists” with trying to limit their freedom.
These oppositions are embodied most emphatically in Wetherington and McLeroy, who meet to debate on a radio show and then again in Wetherington’s home (where they perform as adeptly for the camera s they do for their listeners at the radio station). They’re cordial with one another. “Science is great,” says McLeroy, “But it doesn’t deserve to be placed on the plateau it’s placed on.” Wetherington comes back, “The purpose of an education is to arm students with the ability to make informed judgment.” McLeroy believes he’s informed. Wetherington notes “the power of words and words take on new meanings,” when they’re used to obscure ideology and shut down questioning. “I love your home,” McLeroy says as they agree to disagree—forever. “Thanks for inviting me in here.”
It’s these exchanges, in the hearing room and classrooms, on television and in homes, that are most perplexing and also most heartening here. Talking is a start, and it’s more than what you might see in current mass-mediated presidential campaigning. Actually listening is a next step.