The Great Debaters (2007)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5 ; L- 2; S/N-3 . Running time: 2 hours 10 min.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his
power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you
may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For
our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the
cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the
spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore
take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able
to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything,
to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth
around your waist, and put on the breastplate of
righteousness.
Ephesians 6:10-14

Coach Tolson meets with his debate team..

2007 MGM

I went to this film with great anticipation, both because I was a member of my college’s debate team and because of my concern for social justice. I am happy to report that Denzel Washington’s second film, in which he again directs and stars, fulfilled my hopes for a rousing and inspiring look at a little known chapter in our history, even if screenwriter Robert Eiselesome rearranges some of the facts and imposes the usual Hollywood boy-girl romance on that history. The pattern of the film will be familiar to film lovers, taken as it is from the underdog sports genre,—as some critics have observed, Mr. Washington is now a debate coach, rather than that of the high school football team in Remember the Titans, also a film with a racial/civil rights theme.

Denzel Washington portrays poet and English professor Melvin B. Tolson at Wiley Collge, located in Marshall, Texas, some 140 miles east of Houston. Forest Whitaker is James Farmer Sr., the minister/president of the Methodist college that was established after the Civil War to educate the freedmen. It is 1935, and the fiery Tolson has been coaching a series of debate teams that have won all of their matches against teams from black colleges. As he invites prospective members for this year’s team to try out, he has bigger plans—he has been writing to the debate coaches of white colleges asking for the opportunity to debate their teams, something that has never happened before in America. He also moonlights as a radical labor organizer, slipping out at night, dressed in share croppers’ clothing, to bring together both whites and blacks in a union to press for better wages and living conditions.

Tolson chooses four students for his 1935 team. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), recklessly drinks and carouses at a local juke joint (where Tolson rescues him one night), but has a brilliant mind. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is a carry-over from the previous year, but will be forced to drop out. Freshman James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker—related neither to Denzel nor to Forest) is just 14 years old and the son of the college president, but we know from Tolson’s tough drilling of the students that it is the boy’s ability to conduct research, and not his status that earns him the coveted position. The most controversial choice is that of Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollet), the first female ever to try out for the team, this being a time when women were to take notes and not to be dictating to or debating men.

Like the coaches in all those sports films, Tolson drives his team mercilessly. Their schedules are filled with extra-curricular trips to debate other black college teams, all of which they defeat. It is on one of these trips that one of the most intense scenes take place: traveling late at night, they see the headlights of cars and trucks ahead. There hanging from a tree is the burnt body of a black man, a large crowd of whites staring up at it. Ordering the students to drop down out of sight, Tolson starts to turn the car around. Shining their flashlights into the car, the members of the lynch mob realize that the driver is black, so they attack the car, Tolson barely getting away in time. This incident later will figure powerfully in the climactic debate of the film.

The other racial incident making a strong impression is when Rev. Farmer, on a trip with his wife Ruth (Gina Ravera) and four children, hits a hog that runs out in front of their car. They stop, and as a rag-taggle group of white children stare at them through a fence, two white men armed with guns, stride out and berate the minister. He is a college president, and they are probably illiterate, but it is 1935 Jim Crow South. He is black and they are white. They have the power to shoot him with impunity should they choose to do so. He realizes this far more than his wife and children, so he submits meekly to their insults and threats. He offers to pay with the check received for his preaching engagement an outrageous price for the pig, even though his wife tells him they need it for food. It is a scene of racially inflicted humiliation equal to the one in the civil rights-themed Freedom Song, in which Danny Glover plays a father who is shamed by whites by being forced to spank publicly his young son for innocently wandering into a whites only area of a store. No doubt this was a factor that drove son James Farmer, Jr. to help found the Congress of Racial Equality just seven years later, in 1942.

The film is different from most guiding light teacher films in that these are not students resisting education, but are at Wiley College because they want to be there—and the teachers are black, not white outsiders coming to do good. It is 1935, a time when blacks still saw education not only as their ticket out of poverty but also as an ennobling process that nurtures dreams and aspirations. Tolson feeds the hearts as well as the minds of his students, quoting poets such as Langston Hughes and telling the class about the Harlem Renaissance, then near the end of its prominence in American art and letters. (Strange that the script doesn’t have him quoting his own poetry, some of it appearing later in such publications as The Atlantic, and making him so famous that the president of the Republic of Liberia named him as Poet Laureate!)

The debates are really just highlight moments, but definitely inspiring, so much so that when Samantha argues passionately for her cause, the largely black audience with whom I saw the film broke out into applause and cheers when she made a telling point. Although it seems like an artificial coincidence that the team always was assigned the affirmative side of such questions as Negroes should be allowed to attend white colleges, or that civil disobedience is a legitimate form of resistance to a government, this does reinforce the anti-racism theme of the film.

This is a film that cries out for church youth and adult groups to see and discuss. Denzel Washington’s film fleshes out the stirring words of James Weldon Johnson’s great hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” now to be found in most major hymnals: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered; We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughter…” The film celebrates a heritage that both blacks and whites should embrace and find inspiration and strength to continue the battle against racism.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What is the effect does the opening sequence in which the film alternates between the juke joint and the prayer and the fiery speech in the college chapel? Were you surprised to find Tolson at the juke joint? How does this prepare us for understanding his dual role as professor and labor organizer?

2) What similarities do you see in this film and those of the sports genre in which underdogs face seemingly insurmount
able odds and win? Why do you think we usually side with the underdog in any battle? How is this similar to Liberation Theology, which views the Bible as a series of the acts of the God who favors the poor and oppressed?

3) Why was it important that teachers such as Tolson connect students with the works of black poets and writers? (Note also how this is a similar theme in many films dealing with the black experience of that period: how important was the victory of boxer Joe Louis over his white opponents?)

4) How is Tolson in effect helping his student “put on the whole armor of God” ?

How did you feel when Rev. Farmer was humiliated by the white men? (I saw some of this while in Mississippi in 1964 when African Americans were required to take a voting test. I drove a school teacher to the court house in one of several attempts to register to vote, and again she failed to pass, even though some illiterate whites were added to the roll. She said, “I’ll keep goin’ back until they’s tired of me. I’ll get to vote one day.” There was a story going around then in the black community about a black college professor who was given a series of difficult questions by the white registrar, and he successfully answered every one. Then he was handed a piece of paper on which the question was written in Greek. When asked to translate, he replied, “It says, ‘This is one more nigger who ain’t goin’ to get ta vote!’” )

5) How is racism a modern counterpart to what the apostle Paul called the struggle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” ?

6) How might this constant humiliation of blacks, no matter their education or status, have contributed to the cynicism of so many of today’s black youth, and even at times students’ hiding their academic knowledge for fear of being accused of wanting “to be white” ?

7) How are all of the debate topics thematically appropriate?

8) What effect does the charge that Tolson is a Communist have—both among whites and blacks? How was this charged still being used in the 1960’s? What is its appeal to those making it?

9) The film notes that James Farmer, Jr. was one of those who founded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, just seven years after he was a freshman at Wiley College. How might the arguments made in the climactic debate have led him to do this? For a sound/pictorial history of CORE and its current concerns, Google http://www.core-online.org/.

10) Some further things worth noting: For some reason the film changed the name of the real female debater Henrietta Bell Wells, even though the names of the other real people were retained. (Maybe because of the fictional love relationship, or also because she graduated in 1934, a year ahead of the events depicted in the film—though she was indeed the first female team member.) However, Jurnee Smollett did visit the 95 year-old Ms. Wells in her Houston nursing home and reported how this helped provide her with the key for interpreting the character. She reportedly visited the ill elderly woman several times, in person and by telephone.

At the film’s Marshall screening: The cast went to Wiley College where Denzel Washington said, “I’m pleased as punch for these young people and people that came before us as we celebrate with this town and this school. We’ll try to help the school and get the debate team back on its feet. It seems like the right thing to do. It’s time for another winning streak.” True to his word, the actor has donated a million dollars to the financially-strapped college, mainly for the re-establishment of the long defunct debate team.