Great Debaters

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"I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind."

Aug 3, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A gripping drama, full of great actors and great thoughts.

Cons:It was a bit too cautious.

The Bottom Line: Poignant and stirring, this movie preserves some forgotten heroes of equality.


The Great Debaters (2007) Directed by Denzel Washington.

Question: Who is the judge?
Answer: The judge is god.
Question: Why is he god?
Answer: Because he decides who wins or loses. Not my opponent.
Question: Who is your opponent?
Answer: He does not exist.
Question: Why does he not exist?
Answer: Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the Truth I speak!


In 1935 in Marshall, Texas, Wiley College, a black College fielded a winning Debate Team. In the midst of the Great Depression, in the Jim Crow South, this was a shining beacon of reason and hope in a sea of ignorance and oppression.

Melvin B. Tolson was the professor in charge of this activity. He was an intelligent man of definite views, and he knew that this hobby, this extra curricular activity, was a way to train the minds that would shape the future. In his own words, Debate is bloodsport, a bloodsport fought with words. It takes no prisoners. It is cut throat, you win or die, and that is the way he runs his auditions.

The final team consisted of Hamilton Burgess, a veteran of the debate team, Henry Lowe, a young man with a sharp mind, and a hard fist. He is angry, but not consumed; he is aimless, but searching for something to believe in. James Farmer Jr. is a 14 year old genius, the son of a very successful minister, and a young man living up to very high expectations. The last member is Samantha Booke, the first Negro woman on a debate team.

Tolson is a harsh taskmaster, but his exercises do prepare his charges. He is demanding, and unforgiving, but in each rebuke is a lesson, and a guidepost to doing better. Further, he is good at strategy, and his ploys and plays get his team noticed. There victories quickly become a matter of routine.

But the isolated world of Academia is not the whole of the south, and when The Reverend Farmer accidentally hits a white man’s hog, young James gets a lesson in the harsh realities of appeasement. His father is an educated, well to do man; the pig farmer is poor trash, but because of the colour of his skin, the Reverend has to give away his entire paycheck to appease this man for an accident, them help load the hog into the ramshackle pickup truck.

An unfortunate love triangle develops. Henry and Samantha are strongly attracted to each other. Unfortunately James also has a huge crush on Samantha. James likes Henry, but sees the older boy cut him off without even trying, and worse, without noticing.

But if those tensions were not enough, we see James follow Mr. Tolson, dressed as a farmer, through the night to a secluded barn. There, Mr. Tolson seeks to organize the sharecroppers, both black and white, into a union. Their meeting is raided by the Sheriff, and it is only through luck and Mr. Tolson that James was not captured or injured. Tolson swears the boy to secrecy, something that causes him no small amount of trouble when he gets home at 1:30 in the morning and can not tell his parents where he has been.

Further pressures mount in the team because of Tolson’s politics. Hamilton asks Tolson to tell him he is not a communist. Tolson refuses to discuss his politics. And Mr. Burgess, unsatisfied, withdraws from the team. Now they are three, and the three with the most drama amongst themselves.

Tolson, while a political activist, is also very concerned with putting his team in the best possible position. He actually secures debates against White Colleges. The first is Oklahoma City University, and it is Samantha’s first debate as a speaker.

”The state is currently spending five times more for the education for a white child than it is fitting to educate a colored child. That means better textbooks for that child than for that child. I say that's a shame, but my opponent says today is not the day for whites and coloreds to go to the same college. To share the same campus. To walk into the same classroom. Well, would you kindly tell me when that day is gonna come? Is it going to come tomorrow? Is it going to come next week? In a hundred years? Never? No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always RIGHT NOW!

Through the trails of the debate world, the thorny mazes of the heart, the tangles of fear, and shame generated by that fear, unjust incarceration and even a lynching, the little team from Texas continues to prevail.

And at last, they get the big prize. They are going to debate Harvard. This match means national recognition, and a chance to show the nation that they are not only as good as anything their Ivy League can put forward, they are better.

The Cast
Denzel Washington ... Melvin B. Tolson Won Image Award. Nominated for an Image Award as Director.
Nate Parker ... Henry Lowe Nominated for an Image Award
Jurnee Smollett ... Samantha Booke Won Image Award
Denzel Whitaker ... James Farmer Jr. Won Image Award. Won Young Artist Award for Best Actor.
Jermaine Williams ... Hamilton Burgess
Forest Whitaker ... Dr. James Farmer Sr. Nominated for an Image Award
Gina Ravera ... Ruth Tolson
John Heard ... Sheriff Dozier
Kimberly Elise ... Pearl Farmer
Jackson Walker ... Pig Owner

The Analysis
This story is loosely based on real events. It was not Harvard that Wiley debated, but the University of Southern California, the reigning champions. Harvard was used to promote the proper sense of gravitas. Samantha Booke is based upon Henrietta Bell Wells, who, on the Wiley 1930 team was involved in the first inter racial debate. Prairie View is not near Waxahachie, which may explain why they were lost.

Outside these points, the story is functionally true. And it is deeply moving, and encouraging. The bravery, the intelligence, the grace of these students can not be denied. The power of the movie is obvious, and it is heart warming.

I was, however, expecting more. This movie could have stepped it up a level more. These students, even Henry who lived in a shack on Caddo Lake, were always clean and well fed. The society they moved amongst was well educated and genteel. Only in the sharecroppers did we see the over riding hard grinding poverty that sucked the soul from people. These children lead sheltered lives.

I wish it scratched deeper into the lives of non Wiley blacks, but that one small criticism aside, I was thoroughly impressed, and thoroughly entertained.

The production values were superlative, the historical detail pervasive and except for the train, flawless. (Marshal was a big station, a crossroads, not a whistle-stop.) It is a view into a time and place blessedly removed, but one that should never be forgotten.

These young men and women helped to educate the nation about the potential of Negros. Rhetoric is all very good, but to claim that the Negro is mentally inferior when they have defeated your best, it just does not ring true.

”An unjust law is no law at all.” St. Augustine of Hippo.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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