For three years, director Scott Thurman followed the “culture wars” that characterized many Texas Board of Education meetings in 2009 and 2010 as the predominantly conservative organization sought to redefine phrasing they’d permit textbook companies hoping to do business with the state’s schools to use. The conservative members, most prominently represented by board chairman Don McLeroy and member Cynthia Dunbar, were particularly preoccupied with introducing prejudicial phrasing that would subtly undermine the theory of evolution, implicatively opening the back door for the introduction of creationism into schools, as well as a more selective view of American history that emphasized the notion of American exceptionalism while deemphasizing, among other things, the country’s legacy of racism. Most prominently representing their opposition are Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, and Ron Wetherington, a Texas anthropology professor.
The Revisionaries, the result of Thurman’s research, packs a quietly chilling punch. It’s easy to see where Thurman’s sympathies lie, as he’s clearly outraged that the Texas Board of Education has inadvertently become an agency promoting hardcore conservative right-wing beliefs to children potentially young enough to be unquestioningly indoctrinated. McLeroy and Dunbar unconvincingly feign an interest in dispassionate fact that transcends personal belief, but their votes and political movements consistently promote a desire to discredit evolution as well as any sentiments that dare present this country as capable of governmental fallacy.
No one in McLeroy’s camp is able to justify their beliefs with any explanation other than the inevitable cop-out that creationism is based on an act of faith. Thurman captures not only the fear and anti-intellectual resentment and insecurity that govern the dictations of the far right, but also the rampant unchecked egotism. The experts are wrong and people like MeLeroy know better because, well, they just know, and, furthermore, it’s impossible that humans could ever represent a step in a natural progression from prior species, because creationism also affords humans the flattery of feeling superior to every other species on the planet. The looks of disgust that register on McLeroy and Dunbar’s faces at the mention of an open debate speak volumes.
But Thurman also refuses to offer up McLeroy and Dunbar as easy monsters to be scorned; you’re allowed to see them as people struggling at times to reconcile their beliefs with the outrage that greets them, and their authentic befuddlement allows for notes of poignancy and grace. Thurman follows McLeroy as he ran for his chair’s re-election in 2010, after he’d helped to perpetrate a number of textbook-standard revisions that pave the way for non-secular teaching, and we’re allowed to share his grief over his loss even if it almost certainly represented a minor victory for secular education. And this battle is even more significant than is immediately obvious, as Texas’s textbook standards often, along with California’s, dictate national standards. At the end we’re told that all the seats in the Texas Board of Education are up for re-election this year, and that voter interest is terrifyingly low. If there were any justice, The Revisionaries would be playing on 3,000 screens this weekend.