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Review of 'The Great Debaters'

By Lisa Pease
December 14, 2007

Who would have guessed that the most uplifting film of the year would come from a Depression-era story about a professor who battled the ignorance and racism of his time to earn his all-black debating team a groundbreaking invitation to challenge Harvard’s champions?

Denzel Washington directs and stars in “The Great Debaters,” a film inspired by the true story of the Wiley College debating team from Marshall, Texas, that, under the guidance of professor, poet and labor activist Melvin B. Tolson, rose to national prominence.

The film itself engages in a debate of its own, presenting a powerful affirmative argument to a proposition which, in the parlance of forensics, could be framed as follows: “Resolved: That a solid education is the ultimate leveler in society, transcending race, religion, and class to provide opportunities for advancement.”

Under Tolson’s leadership, four chosen students learn how to research, to evaluate sources, to articulate arguments clearly, and to use words as weapons in battles which, as the film’s chosen topics remind us, have tremendous consequences for society as a whole. The students have their work cut out for them, not the least of which includes navigating their own intertwining journeys from adolescence to adulthood.

Filmed largely in Louisiana, the film reminds of us a shameful era in our history, when a man could be strung up and burned for no greater crime than being born with skin of a certain color. But it also harkens back to a more formal era, where men signed women’s dance cards and students wore suits to college.

The film takes place in 1935, a year of contradictions.

While America passed the Social Security Act as part of the New Deal, the Nazis in Germany replaced the nation’s striped flag with one bearing a swastika and turned anti-Semitism into public policy.

In India, Gandhi’s policy of nonviolent civil disobedience caused the British to start India on the journey to self-governance, and inspired American sharecroppers and tenant farmers to form a union.

The film touches on all of these events, weaving a rich backdrop from the historical reality of the time.

Powerful Cast

The talented cast includes Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as James Farmer, Sr., a preacher. Whitaker imbues every scene he’s in with a quiet intelligence. His son in the film, James Farmer, Jr., is played by a talented young actor named, ironically, Denzel Whitaker, although he is not related to or named after either of the film’s adult stars.

Nate Parker gives a varied and emotional performance as Henry Lowe, a rebel torn between his emotional and rational impulses.

Jurnee Smollet is equally compelling as Samantha Booke, the first girl in the college’s history to serve on the debating team. Booke’s fiery eloquence and impassioned rhetoric play a key role in the team’s successes.

Smollet’s character is based in part on the only surviving member of the 1935 debating team, Henrietta Bell Wells, now 95 years old and living in Houston, Texas.

But it is Denzel Washington who, without half trying, steals the show with the loosest, most ebullient character he’s played yet.

As Tolson, his exuberance hides a private side that, if exposed, could cost the team, as well as members of the community, their future. Tolson is a labor organizer at a time when organizers of such movements were considered Communists.

While Wiley College really did debate the national champions in 1935 (which came from USC, not Harvard, although Wiley did debate Harvard with the same result as shown in the film), the rest of the story is largely fictionalized.

Three of the four debaters are composites based on a mix of Wiley College debaters who were interviewed for the film. Love triangles and political intrigue keep the story moving but are not meant to reflect actual events.

One debate team member, however, is based on the very real James Leonard Farmer, Jr., who helped found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He was an extremely bright child, and entered Wiley College when he was only 14 years old.

He became one of the foremost civil rights leaders in the nation, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

“The Great Debaters” opens on Christmas Day. Take all but your very youngest.

Lisa Pease is a historian who has studied the JFK assassination and other enduring political mysteries.

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