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Movie Review, “The Great Debaters”

                                                                                                                  The Great Debaters


The Great Debaters is a movie based on the true story of Wiley College debate team in Marshall Texas. The story takes place in 1935 and Wiley college is an all black college. In 1935 in the deep south racism is a major problem as established by one of the the opening scene with the arrival of Samantha Booke ( played by Jurnee Smollett ) at the bus stop in Marshall, the backdrop of the “Whites Only” bench. Mr Melvin Tolson(played by Denzel Washington) a professor at Wiley college starts its first black debate team.

The movie starts with a scene at a juke joint, juke joints were gathering places for blacks to unwind after a long days work and since in the Jim Crow south blacks couldn’t use the same public facilities as whites, a juke joint was their bar/dance hall and by the way the birth place of Blues music. Melvin Tolson intervenes in a fight between a young man named Henry Lowe (played by Nate Parker) and a very upset husband bent on killing him for unknowingly kissing his wife, Henry Lowe had the upper hand and was probably going to kill his attacker, but Mr Tolson stopped him so he wouldn’t throw his life away. The next day Mr Tolson starts class with a quote from Langston Hughes where he finds Henry Lowe in the class. We are now formally introduced to some of the other main characters, Samantha Booke as mentioned earlier and James Farmer Jr.(played by Denzel Whitaker) and Hamilton Burgess(played by Jermaine Williams). As we continue Mr. Tolson makes the selection of the main characters to be on the debate team, Henry Lowe and Hamilton Burgess are the primary debaters with Samantha Booke and James Farmer Jr. as the alternates. It is made obvious that young James Farmer Jr. who is 14 has an infatuation with Samantha, but Henry Lowe has an interest too. As I watch Mr. Tolson train his new team I learn quite a few things I didn’t know about the history of slavery, presented in very vivid depictions, like the etymology of the word “lynch”. As a white man in an interracial marriage with a black woman you might think it would be uncomfortable to watch movies that deal with racial issues, I can’t speak for everybody but we don’t have a problem, what it does do is spur conversations that I think should happen more often than not. These are tough issues to talk about, but if you don’t talk about these histories and events you risk the same thing occurring again. Many whites and blacks these days aren’t aware of the struggles the country has had with racial oppression and hatred, and thats a shame, just because something like this isn’t taught in most history classes or remembered doesn’t mean that its all in the past or that it won’t happen again, quite the opposite, teaching these histories and remembering the struggle to overcome will help improve things and keep these things in the past, at least thats what I think the point of movies like this are.

Another character introduced in the movie was James Farmer Sr., a professor at Wiley college and a preacher. James Farmer Sr. was extremely intelligent and well educated, trying to raise a family and teach his son dignity and respect in a time when the world didn’t give him dignity or respect as demonstrated by the incident when James Farmer Sr. accidentally hit a pig that had run out in the road, Mr. Farmer was willing to reimburse the white men for their pig even though it wasn’t his fault, he had to endure disrespect and demeaning treatment of racial hatred, in front of his family. This shows how hard it is to teach your children to work hard and do your best and you will better yourself when the world would not think better of you because of the color of your skin. James Farmer Jr. didn’t understand his fathers attitude toward the pig farmers and lost a little respect for his father because of that incident, it wasn’t until he and the rest of the team drove upon a lynching and he witnessed the brutality that could be unleashed upon a black person if he wasn’t very careful. Despite these brutal truths of the time, the team continued to be impressive and rack up victories, their one loss being the debate with Howard University the day after they drove upon the brutal scene of a black man being lynched, that loss being completely understandable. I really liked the dynamics of the relationship between the team members, the friction of the jealousy between the two men, James Farmer Jr. and Henry Lowe, due to their mutual interest in the only female team mate, Samantha Booke. At the same time they had a mutual respect for each other and tried to encourage each other when times were tough, this was very evident when after witnessing the demoralizing lynching, James Farmer Jr. when realizing the apparent futility of striving to better themselves, was going to give up, but Henry Lowe told him never to talk like that, he couldn’t give up and let this world beat him down. This is a theme that this movie brings out for all and isn’t racially based, no matter the odds and no matter what the nay sayer, keep striving, don’t give up, do your best. One of the teams biggest challenges came when Harvard University accepted the Wiley challenge to a debate that would be broadcast nationwide. They learned at the train station that their mentor and professor Mr. Tolson wouldn’t accompany them due to his unionizing activities(more on that in a moment), they would be on their own for the first time. Further complicating things, they found out that the topics were changed and they would have to write their own arguments without the help of their teacher. With this added stress and only 48 hours to prepare the team, now consisting of only Henry Lowe, Samantha Booke, and James Farmer Jr.( Mr. Burgess quit the team, more on that in a moment), argued over the right way to start the debate. The topic was “Is Civil Disobedience Proper”, and they were to argue the affirmative. Henry decided to let James debate in his place and that he and Mr Tolson thought he was ready. I think this is the vote of confidence James needed as they reminded each other of the most important thing Mr. Tolson taught them, that only God is judge and that their only real opponent was themselves. They went on to a historical win over Harvard by drawing on everything that Mr. Tolson had taught them, but more importantly what their own experience in life had taught them. I found these lessons to be important no matter what your race or background, work hard to improve yourself with education, formal or otherwise, don’t let the world and nay sayers get you down no matter what and do what you know is right no matter what everyone around you is doing.

Another important topic broached upon in this movie was Mr. Tolson’s efforts to help organize the sharecroppers into a labor union, something that was not popular for those times, or anytime for that matter. It was because of the rumors of his activities with the sharecroppers and the lies of him being communist that lead to Mr Burgess resigning from the team. Because of his efforts Mr. Tolson was unlawfully arrested after his name was given when one of the black sharecroppers was brutally beaten. It was only after the sharecroppers black and white rose up in protest and the efforts of James Farmer Sr. that Mr. Tolson was turned loose. Due to these events though Mr. Tolson and the team were blacklisted and many white colleges that had agreed to debates withdrew, that is when they went to debate Howard University, but they kept writing Harvard, and despite their loss to Howard University, Harvard agreed to the famous debate.Efforts to unionize in the south was met with great resistance and at times great violence. Despite this Mr. Tolson had great success in organizing the sharecroppers, by the end of 1936 the Southern Tenants Farmers Union had 31,000 members in 7 states. Mr Melvin Tolson also went on to become a famous poet. We also learned the fate of the other main characters; Mr. Henry Lowe went on to study theology at the University of California and became a minister, Ms Samantha Booke went on to become a lawyer and participate in the first freedom ride to Alabama, just seven years later in 1942 James Farmer Jr. founded the Congress of Racial Equality and became a leader in the civil rights movement, after a long life of teaching James Farmer Sr. died in 1961,and for 10 years the Wiley College debate team went undefeated.

I personally thought this was an incredible and well done movie. The Great Debaters was directed by Denzel Washington, I thought he masterfully handled what could be a tough subject. Being based on a true story, I found the movie sobering to the struggles that the generation of blacks of that time. I think it was also shown how hard it was to raise children to have dignity and respect for themselves and others when the world around you doesn’t even give you the respect of being human just because the color of your skin, no matter your intelligence or accomplishments. The plight of the black and poor white sharecroppers and their efforts to unionize to improve their lot in life was depicted as well. I would highly recommend this movie no matter who you are, for when history goes lost so sometimes the future.

James R. Donaldson.



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