The Great Debaters
Directed by Denzel Washington | 123 minutes
Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker
On the surface, The Great Debaters is about the struggle of African Americans and the fight for equal education. Dig deeper and you will see that that film, like its premise, debates a point: not whether black people should be treated fairly (far too many Civil War movies already deal with this poignant subject), but how Black America should see itself today.
From the time of Vaudeville when whites would don themselves in black paint and mimic the newly freed slaves to Richard Prior’s brazen use of the “N-word,” cultural depreciation has been an inextricable component of the African American mind-set. Even in today’s post civil rights world, racial stereotypes dominate the mainstream media. One need only listen to the misogynistic lyrics of Rap and Hip-hop music to identify the archetype of the violent, uneducated, chauvinistic black man.
The Great Debaters challenges these staid fallacies. It was Thomas Jefferson who once said that if we enlighten the public, “tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day”. During the 1930s, the period for which the film takes place, these words seem to fall on deaf ears by the very country that held Jefferson in such high esteem. This was an era when the Jim Crow segregationist laws were very much in effect. The story revolves around an all-black Texas debate team from Wiley College that achieved national recognition for its decade-long undefeated streak. The team matched their sharp tongues and keen wits against the divisive, racist attitudes of the American South, ultimately helping close the gap between blacks and whites by fighting for the racial integration of schools.
Although only his second film to date, director Denzel Washington treats this story with scholarly dignity and a refined style that balances the depersonalized system of segregation with the grit, fortitude and heart of those who were determined to demolish it. The movie is paced much like a debate itself, with the back and forth of an argument that pulls the audience into the ring of verbal jabs and hooks.
Washington also effortlessly plays the role of Melvin Tolson, a renowned poet and political activist during the Depression. Tolson is a brilliant but volatile professor who organizes a small, elite group of students for his debate team. The group is comprised of the timid Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett) as the first black female debater; the ingenious but world-weary womanizer Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) as the innocent 14-year-old son of Wiley President James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker, no relation). In real life, Farmer Jr. would go on to found the Congress for Racial Equality, which is a fitting denouement for his performance as a thin-skinned boy who feels overlooked by his more seasoned peers. Given this motley crew of intellectuals, their conflicting personalities set the stage for some on-screen tension and cinematic fireworks.
The team begins by taking on the best black colleges across the region and winning in the kind of dramatic fashion reminiscent of Rocky films. Their panache and skill arouse the interest of prestigious white debating societies across the South.
But the film is far more complex than your average David-versus-Goliath tale. The story strays from the scholarly debating halls to the larger world, exposing the gritty injustices of the times. While driving through the backwoods, Tolson and his team chance upon a lynch mob surrounding the charred remains of a young black man. Hungry for blood, the drunken mob quickly swarm the car. Although the team narrowly escapes, they are forever haunted by the incident.
For these young students then, the debates are anything but abstract discourses removed from reality. They argue in the hopes of shaping the landscape of future America. It is for this reason that Tolson leads a dangerous double-life, secretly mobilizing a racially integrated farmer’s union to stave off the woes of the Great Depression. His socially-conscious rabble-rousing upsets the local sheriff and lands him in jail. Although subsequently released, his debate team is blacklisted among white universities as a consequence of his extracurricular activities.
But all is not lost. Harvard is still willing to debate Wiley, and the unprecedented showdown is to take place at Harvard’s Boston campus. This poses a problem for Tolson since he is prohibited from leaving Texas. Now the three students are forced to compete without their leader and the outcome of the debate is more uncertain than ever before.
The filmmakers take a number of creative liberties with the facts. For example, the actual debate 75 years ago was between Wiley and the University of Southern California, not Harvard. Apparently, Harvard seems to have more intellectual gravitas. (Coincidentally, Harvard is also Barrack Obama’s alma mater.)
History buffs may feel cheated when confronted with such factual errors, but theatrics are a part of why we love movies like The Great Debaters in the first place. And theatrics are abundant as it unfolds according to a familiar underdog script. But the debate team’s success story is also a vessel for a stirring message about equality and morality. There are moments of brief violence, crude vulgarities and disturbing imagery, but these serve to make a very necessary point about racism and self-hatred. In order to eradicate these falsehoods, our own ideas and beliefs must be put through the refiner’s fire of question, doubt and debate. Such was the guiding spirit of the Wiley College debating team, a spirit that would make Jefferson himself proud.
David Demers is a student at the University of Ottawa.