The Great Debaters: A Review

Movie: The Great Debaters
Director: Denzel Washington

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

-Langston Hughes, 1925 (Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes)

Harpo Films’ The Great Debaters is a classic, set on the high tones of melancholy, delicately infused with a passion for dignity and worth, that runs through one’s morals and forgotten history- one piercing stroke at a time. Set in the southern state of Texas, in the year 1935, the story brings together into its canvas broad characters—each of them a strong influence in the film only when interwoven together. But, for the film’s appeal to one’s humanity, for a turmoil-rich walk through our history together as a human race, for the richness rendered to one’s emotions, and for valuable lessons that one leaves with after this two hour long saga—one is left with a warm heart—our morals and conscience high with sanctity.

Wiley College is a small, all-black institution in the small town of Marshall, Texas. Torn between depression and with the growing seeds of the civil rights movement, the town of Marshall is the backdrop against which the team of young debaters train themselves under the scintillating teacher, Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson, played by Denzel Washington is probably the character which holds together the essence of the film with his brightness, cleverness, and his profound intelligence. Just as Langston Hughes’ I, too, am America reverberates through Tolson’s baritone, one is forced to go through the agony of the darker brother who is denied of dignity, pride, and worth, even as the American flags flew on the homes of the black Americans. His frame adds to his personality—for, he is the voice of the oral history—an inspiration to his students, a voice of reason, but at the most needed, a voice of resistance and revolution.  Observing Tolson closely, one can find his strong hold on satire, on how he mocks the South’s racial system through its own built. But satire is not what he leaves it at; he adds logic to expose how the racial discrimination has penetrated subtly into the psyches of the black Americans—“…which means I can lie about my age for the rest of my life…you think, that’s funny, to be born without record”. Tolson is unforgiving, ferocious, tough, and unyielding. On a parallel line, Tolson is also involved in organising a mixed-race sharecroppers’ Union, which eventually gets him into trouble with the local sheriffs. Rumours run wild of him being a Communist, but Tolson’s principles and beliefs keep him grounded and focused on what he is fighting for. He stands as the authoritative and righteous figure whose voice is the voice for the right, the voice of the poor, and the voice of the oppressed. Tolson’s influence on the other characters is noted starkly as the film continues.

The film also depicts the viciousness of racism as it was present in the South. The white supremacist regimes of Jim Crow had established segregation in the South. The conservative whites denied the Blacks their exercise of civil and political rights. The region’s reliance on agriculture continued to limit opportunities for most people. Blacks were exploited as sharecroppers and labourers.  Alongside the racial caste system, it also brings to the forefront the poverty and oppression of the agrarian South during the Depression. In one of the earlier scenes in the film, when Samantha Booke played by Jurnee Smollett, enters into Marshall, she witnesses the high-ridden poverty. Lined along the outskirts of the town are shanties- raw and naked- ringing the helplessness of the ones who have been left out by the State.

A profound belief in education remains the central theme in the film. This is highlighted in the opening scene where James Farmer Sr., a minister, says —“education is the only way out… the way out of ignorance… the way out of darkness into the glorious light…”. It points out how Blacks valued education and believed education to be the only means to equality—to civil rights. Tolson also uses the tried and tested means of education, of poetry, and the words and writings of people who were creating the Harlem Revolution. He advocates to his students to claim the rights of the Blacks as equal citizens of America through his classes. Has Tolson identified the future voices of the Civil Rights Movement in James Farmer Jr., Henry Lowe, and Samantha Booke is something that the audience has to find out for themselves. However, education as separate as that of the Whites and the Blacks, minds as separate as that of the Whites and Blacks, can they ever be integrated, or will they ever let to be integrated? Can a South which does not hesitate to lynch a Black man for a petty crime go to the extent of opening its schools and colleges for the Black brothers and sisters? Is the idea too progressive for 1935? And, if it is so, why is the ‘superior race’—the whites—not able to yet conceive the idea of considering the Blacks as their equal? And, how is it that the Blacks stand in lines nodding silently at every argument made in favour of their rights as human beings, their rights as Americans, their rights as citizens? The Wiley College Debate team’s victory is mere one instance of glory on the road towards the Civil Rights Movements. Many more have shattered the White pride and emancipated the Black dignity.

The film brings out the political and social conditions of the South where Blacks were second-class citizens. A Black could have a college degree, he or she could own a decent position, own a good house, and a car, but that would still not make him any better than even the white trash. The South was running on a madness, which was continuously fuelled by the revolutionary North. In the South, a Black man could be attacked for the simple reason of being a Black. The volatile politics shown with heart-wrenching trueness in the film only brings to light what it would have meant to have a black skin in the South. The film does not shy away from exposing the persecution and the humiliation that the blacks were put through in Jim Crow’s South. And, nor does the film hides the gruesome violations done towards the Blacks such as lynching. In the scene where the Wiley College Debate Team comes across lynching, one is not prepared to witness the vividness of the scene. Hanging from a tree is a burnt body of a young Black surrounded by a white mob. As the mob turns towards the car in which the team is travelling, one can see a small, white boy looking at the dead body. It goes on to convince the rashness with which the perverted psychosis of discriminating, criminalising and hating the Blacks had penetrated into the Whites of the South. Thus, ensues the journey to self-discovery and realisation.

The Wiley College Debate Team, which so far, had been considering debating nothing more than a competition, finally sets forth in understanding of what they are standing for. It is here when the team struggles to believe in themselves, and as young college students, one can understand the fear and the helplessness that they must be undergoing. However, one cannot help but discover that it is in moments such as these in which must have been inseminated the seeds of the Civil Rights movement. Most of the topics ever discussed throughout the film revolve around issues pertaining to civil rights.

One cannot escape the film without a heavy heart or a secret happiness when the Harvard audience stands tall and celebrates the victory of this young team. However, the critic remains in how the Wiley College Debate Team did not get a single debating argument against civil rights. Was it taken for granted that a young Black college team would want to argue in favour of civil rights and that white teams would want to argue against? Even more so, one has to question, why is there not a single white character projected in a positive light? The film transcends in the hearts of its audience as Blacks being the morally-superior race without giving much credit to the Whites.

The film has been able to cover the essence of the struggle of the years leading to the Civil Rights movement. It has put on the course of history a moment of glory preceded by violations, humiliation and hurt. It is the Civil Rights Movements that brings together the elements of morality, education, rights (civil, political, and human) and self determination together. And in bringing all these precious elements together, it lets one walk on a journey of humanness, love, dignity and respect. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”


I wrote this review, as an assignment for my coursework during my Master’s program.
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