“The Great Debaters,” a Black college-based historical drama starring Denzel Washington, renders rousing justice to the legacy of Wiley College’s 1935 national championship debating team. With its focus on a debating team at a historically Black college achieving victories against teams from larger Black school rivals and White universities, the Oprah Winfrey-produced, Washington-directed film sets out on an ambitious course. And for the most part, it delivers.
Coached by a quirky and politically radical poet, Dr. Melvin B. Tolson, who is played by Washington, the debate team encounters numerous challenges, including the struggle for personal safety in the dangerous Jim Crow South of that era. In addition to Washington’s solid acting and directing, the film boasts Forest Whitaker, a recent Academy Award-winning actor like Washington, and Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker), as the real-life father and son, Dr. James L. Farmer, Sr. and noted civil rights activist James L. Farmer Jr.
At the time, the elder Farmer, the first Black man from Texas to earn a Ph.D., was an administrator at Wiley College, located in Marshall, Texas. During his career, the elder won acclaim as an author and theologian. As one of Wiley’s best-known graduates, the younger Farmer emerged as a leading activist in the American civil rights movement in the 1940s and remained an influential movement figure through the 1960s. In the movie, the younger Farmer is portrayed as a precocious 14-year-old freshman debater whose relative youth leads to compelling conflicts with the older student debaters.
As the aspiring attorney Samantha Booke, Jurnee Smollett (co-star of “Eve’s Bayou”) turns in a fiery performance as the first woman to join the Wiley College team. Smollett shines as she summons barely controlled rage at racial injustice to energize her debating performances. Nate Parker as the brooding, rebellious Henry Lowe proves adept as the skeptical foil to Washington’s domineering Melvin. An older student who has attended college intermittently over the years, Parker’s Henry is a combination of bad boy charisma and vulnerability that makes him irresistible to the women he encounters, including Samantha.
What’s interesting about “The Great Debaters” is not so much the debating mechanics and strategy, which are given some sketchy explanation early in the film. It’s how the debate topics are used to illuminate the Black condition in 1930s America. At first, the debates between the Black college teams focus on economic issues, such as the role of social welfare and the fairness of capitalism. These obviously were major topics for Americans mired deeply in the throes of the Great Depression.
When the Black students meet debaters from an all-White southern university for the first time, the debate topic shifts to racial injustice and it unleashes a flood of dramatic energy. A subplot involving Melvin’s sideline venture in organizing Black and White tenant farmers ratchets up the tension over racial injustice. And scenes from a vicious lynching late in the film prove another critical juncture for the young debaters, who eventually face the Harvard University debate team for the national championship.
Some viewers might find the mix of topics and scenes highlighting the ugliest aspects of American racism unfolding as they do to feel too convenient and contrived. However, the racial injustice theme doesn’t overwhelm and make narrative pawns out of its Black characters. The script, written by Robert Eisele and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, balances the racial drama with conflicts among the debaters, their coach, and Whitaker’s senior Farmer that go a long way in making each of them fully rendered individuals.
To its credit, the script also finds small but effective ways to define the intellectual and social environment that men, such as Melvin Tolson and James Farmer Sr., helped create for their students. Whitaker, for example, excels at embodying the erudition and discipline of a classically trained theologian who’s fluent in several ancient and modern languages. His James Farmer Sr. represents the authoritarian Black college leader whose tough leadership yet deference to Whites are necessary to ensure students on his campus as well as his family are protected from racial violence. Washington’s Melvin Tolson projects an equally authoritative side as he guides the student debaters, but his off-campus organizing activities regarded as defiant of White authority end up placing the debating success of his students as well as his own career at serious risk.
Capturing the nuances of Black college life in the 1930s, “The Great Debaters” hints at how students at such institutions would eventually emerge as leaders in the civil rights movement. By the early 1960s, students at Black colleges would attract national attention for their nonviolent sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters across the South.
Opening on Dec. 25, the film deserves viewing by Americans of all backgrounds. It tells a valuable yet almost-forgotten story with considerable skill and insight.
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