This film reminds us, once again, how far this country has come in the fight against racism, but also how it was not that long ago that blacks and whites were segregated in every aspect of life, even so far as which bench to sit on at a bus station.
As a movie, The Great Debaters is very moving and will have a strong impact on any audience that watches it. It reminds us, once again, how far this country has come in the fight against racism, but also how it was not that long ago that blacks and whites were segregated in every aspect of life, even so far as which bench to sit on at a bus station. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, the movie shouts a strong message without ever becoming preachy or didactic. That said, however, the movie fails as a historical representation of actual events and as a realistic portrayal of what the art of debate truly is.
The movie is set in Marshall, Texas, in 1935 where Melvin Tolson (Washington) is the debate coach for the Wiley College, an all-black institution. He is strict, hard, intense and fair. His debate team is made up four students who all bring something unique to the table. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is a brilliant young man who is as headstrong as Mr. Tolson, but plenty more free-spirited. Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) is an exceptional speaker with a dream of becoming a lawyer. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is a returning member who understands Tolson’s methods. James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is the youngest member, a 14-year-old far more intelligent than most, who is also the son of Dr. James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker).
The team does what no one thinks it is capable of doing: they win. They go undefeated for the season, matching talent and skill with some of the best schools in the country. To prove their ability, Tolson begins sending out newspaper clippings of their winnings to all-white colleges and universities, challenging them to a debate. This tactic ends up paying off for the team and they are able to show the country that black students are as capable and passionate as their white counterparts.
The students’ journey is filled with roadblocks that they manage to overcome. We feel for the students and pull for them to win. But what is unfortunate about Washington’s handling of the material (or it could be a sign of laziness from screenwriter Robert Eisele) is that the tactics and techniques the Wiley students use are not methods of true debate, but merely appeals to emotion and common sense. Tolson repeatedly tells his students to use their research and create strong arguments, but when it comes to the actual debate, they do little more than spout moral lessons to be learned: racism is bad, equality is good; being poor is bad, helping the poor is good. They use no facts, statistics, references, studies, expert opinions or a myriad other tools that real debaters utilize. This makes the team in the movie look noble, but not as talented as they must have truly been.
Another large fact that has caused some commotion around the movie has to do with the championship team Wiley College competes against. In reality, they challenged the University of Southern California, but Washington and his team have changed that to Harvard University. Why? Clearly, beating Harvard makes a stronger point than beating USC, but USC were the national champions at the time. To change it implies that the Wiley College team was only capable of beating a name, not an actual institution.
The movie is uplifting and makes important points about how our country used to view people of color, but at the expense of making a movie that is feel-good and not fact-based. The acting is superb and every performance is exciting to watch, but this alone cannot hide the fact that the audience is misled in a movie that is supposed to be based on true events. | Matthew F. Newlin