April 9, 2008 -- “The Great Debaters” is an emotionally powerful film about race relations in the United States during the Great Depression. It is loosely based on a true story about an all-black debate team that challenged the best debate teams in the country, both black and white. Unfortunately, the story also has enough historical inaccuracies that it should be viewed as substantially a work of fiction. Nevertheless, this is a very uplifting and moving film, one of the best of 2007.
The film is about a great debate team formed at the small all-black Texas school, Wiley College, in 1935. The team is coached by Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington of “American Gangster,” who also directed the film). Tolson was later to become a renowned scholar and poet. In the film, he is also a labor organizer, whose activities jeopardize the debate team's success. Tolson picks four debaters for his team, a smooth-talking troublemaker, Henry Lowe (played by Nate Parker of “Pride”), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett of “Gridiron Gang”), a woman who transferred to Wiley College just for a shot at being on the debate team, Hamilon Burgess (Jermaine Williams of “Stomp the Yard”), the only holdover from the previous year's debate team and a 14-year-old prodigy, James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker of “The Ant Bully”) the son of the college president, James Farmer Sr. (played by Forest Whitaker of “The Last King of Scotland.” He is no relation to Denzel Whitaker).
Tolson is relentless in his training of the debate team, teaching them that the only judge is God and that their opponents don't exist. He teaches them the ways of logic, the ways of witty warfare and how to do research. However, he does not let them prepare their own arguments. Tolson himself prepares the arguments. Farmer and Booke are team alternates, but both get their chance to debate. Farmer is an excellent researcher, and becomes a key member of the team. The team goes undefeated for a long stretch and becomes nationally recognized as a great debate team. Tolson is constantly trolling for tougher opponents and finally gets some white colleges to accept the challenge from tiny Wiley College. Tension rises on the team when Farmer and Lowe become romantic rivals in the quest for Booke's attentions. Burgess is pressured by his father to quit the team because of Tolson's politics.
Several powerful scenes highlight the plight of blacks and poor whites in the south. In one scene, a black man is in mortal danger from two redneck farmers for accidentally killing a pig in a driving accident. In another scene white and black farmers holding a union meeting are attacked by a mob led by law enforcement officials. In another scene the debate team witnesses a lynching and is chased by a mob. All this underlines the arguments for equality and social action made by the debate team. The movie's climax comes when the team debates the national debate champions at Harvard University.
Some of the movie's characters are based on real people, others are composites. In the film, Tolson gives a speech about a man named William Lynch regarding control of slaves in Virginia in the early 1700s. It sounds like a historical account, but is probably based on an urban legend circulated on the Internet in the 1990s. The Wiley debate team did take on the national champions, but it wasn't Harvard, it was the University of Southern California. There are facts in the film (the team did see a lynching) but there is a lot of fiction in the film, too, enough so that the daughter of one of the real debaters wrote this article about the film's inaccuracies and how it attributed real accomplishments to characters with fictitious names.
The facts about the debate team are inspiring enough. Tolson was a remarkable man, one of the best black poets of the 20th century, and his debate team was a wonder. Some of his students went on to become very prominent Americans. The facts are better than the fiction of the movie. Because it plays fast and loose with the facts, it causes doubt to creep in around the rest of the film. That is unfortunate and unnecessary. Denzel Washington proves once again, as he did with “Antwone Fisher” that he can direct a film as well as he can act, and that is no mean feat. Reportedly, this is the first film ever to star two Academy Award winning black actors, Washington and Forest Whitaker. The acting is great and care is taken to develop these characters into people we can root for. This film rates a B+.
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