A new documentary about the Texas State Board of Education’s contentious battle over science and history education is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this week. Its first — and so far only — screening in Texas will be at the Dallas International Film Festival this weekend.
The action in The Revisionaries takes place during the final term of Don McLeroy, the controversial former SBOE chairman. The film follows him as well as former Republican board member Cynthia Dunbar, Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller and Southern Methodist University professor Ron Wetherington as they battle over what to teach Texas children.
The man behind the movie is Lubbock-born director Scott Thurman. Admittedly left-leaning, he said his goal was to present an accurate portrait of the process, not to promote a partisan point of view.
As a graduate student at the University of North Texas, he set out to make a short film. Inspired by his fifth-grade science teacher, he sought to make a short portrait of a science teacher, including how the teacher dealt with the issue of evolution in the classroom.
He found his access blocked by school administrators who shied from talk about evolution. But his search turned him on to a higher-profile situation under way in Austin — the SBOE's deliberations over the state's K-12 curriculum.
Thurman said he won access to key figures such as McLeroy — whom he calls “an open book” — by convincing them that he intended to portray an accurate portrait, which Thurman believes they did. The short project was then developed into a feature-length film.
“Obviously there are subjective decisions in what I choose to keep in and what I don’t,” Thurman said. “But I think there’s an emotional objectivity in how we portray the characters.”
Thurman talked to The Texas Tribune about his film. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation:
TT: Is there a villain in this movie?
Thurman: What we tried to create was a film that could be seen by both sides as being accurate.
Let’s say we have two good guys and two bad guys. Depending on which side of the issue you’re on, you’re going to see those sides flipped. We often talk about McLeroy being both the antagonist and the protagonist.
And his archnemesis, Ron Wetherington, an SMU professor who is politically active and is sort of a thorn in Don’s side, he can be seen as both the protagonist for the scientific community or he can be seen as the antagonist by others.
TT: Did you have any sense of this was how your school materials were put together when you were a student in Texas?
Thurman: No. Not at all.
TT: What did you take away from the experience of making the movie?
Thurman: I learned a lot about the process and how evolution or any concept goes through this political process. And it was somewhat surprising to see how quickly these things get changed by board members, not by science teachers or experts who know the content.
I was also surprised to see how much I like what some people might call the “bad guys,” whether it be Don McLeroy or Cynthia Dunbar. I developed relationships with them, and I like them very much on a personal level.
I saw a lot of articles on Don McLeroy. I think your perception of him is completely different if you read about what he’s done and you see what he’s done in the context of his personal life. He’s a very warm person. If you meet him, you’re going to talk, and you’re going to have a good time, even if you disagree with him. I think he’d make a great neighbor.
TT: Did you look at how large Texas’ impact is on the textbook publishing industry? We often hear that it’s huge, but we’ve also had reports that it’s declining.
Thurman: We touch on that. Our focus is on the characters and on observing this process rather than discussing the wider implications or, even further, what we should do. We don’t even go into what we should do.
We’re going to show how it is. We want to motivate people to get involved, but it’s not a propaganda thing. I think if you hold people’s hands like that, you get them to do something small and then they’re done.
But we touch on it, and the way that we touch on it is by asking why Texas has such power. It’s because we have such a big market, so publishers cater to it. We interview two publishers and discuss that.
However, the truth of the matter is that influence is just waning. It’s new technology, but also as Texas becomes controversial, other states are saying they will not accept those books from the publishers.
I’d say the order of the big aspects of this movie are like this: First, it’s a character portrait of people involved in the political system. Secondly, it’s an observation of the process so people can understand how the content in our classrooms get there. And third, we touch on the textbook issue.