The Great Debaters
by Laura Tucker
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I couldn’t help but think while sitting in the movie theatre out in the Chicago suburbs, amongst a mixed race crowd, how far we’ve come. It was quite hard to ignore with the images and ideas that were splayed across the screen.
Denzel Washington stars as Melvin Tolson, a liberal arts professor at a small “negro college” in Marshall, Texas, circa 1935. Because of his position, he’s well-respected at the school, but outside of the school, no one seems more respected than the local preacher, James Farmer (Forest Whitaker), that is until he and his wife and three children drive outside the boundaries their town and come across a couple of seemingly not too bright pig farmers. Despite the fact he probably makes more money than them, and is definitely much more educated, Farmer is reduced to being called “boy.”
It’s a rude awakening for his son, James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, oddly not a relation). He can’t seem to understand why his father is allowing himself to be treated that way, as at home, he is strong and definitely in charge, and always pontificating on one subject or another. Despite James Jr.’s young age (he’ll be 16 in almost 21 months!), he’s awarded a position on Professor Tolson’s exclusive debate team as an alternate. The other alternate, Samantha Booke (with an E she tells us!), is of course something not seen much on debate teams back then, a female. The two starting debaters are Hamilton Burgess, a veteran of the squad, and Henry Lowe, perhaps the only person in town more pompous than Tolson.
Through Tolson’s controlling efforts, as he will only allow the debate team to research the arguments, preferring to write everything himself, they amass an unbeaten record and begin getting notice. It becomes the goal for them to debate not just other negro colleges, as they know they’re the best there, but they want to take on a real challenge, debating those at white schools. It’s in these travels that James, Jr. gets awakened to what it really means to be born black.
After reading about The Great Debaters before seeing it, I expected it to be just that, a film about this team of really great debaters, and I knew with Washington’s and Whitaker’s skills, it would be taken to an interesting level. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was that the debate team is really the minor story here, with most of the film dealing with race relations as well as some politics. Tolson leads a group of sharecroppers of mixed race to start a union, and rumors are started around town that he is a Communist.
As I sat in the theatre surrounded by the mixed race crowd, those feelings of the film couldn’t have had a larger impact. We hear about people such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, and we hear about the great efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., in fact we now have a holiday in his honor, but we don’t hear about the smaller people that paved the way for me to sit in this theatre.
Like most films with a true story, at the end, we see glimpses of the good that these four kids on the debate team went on to do in their lives, some of which went on to change race relations between us all. It started out with a college professor that refused to settle for an unbeaten record, wanting to prove they were better than even that, and a group of kids that agreed to challenge the system, learning through this to change the world.
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