....the random, brutal humiliation of the everyday life of southern blacks

The Great Debaters

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            We hear people saying they will skip “The Great Debaters” because they are tired of inspirational movies. While this one certainly falls into the template of the inspired teacher showing his students the way up and out, there is much more to this movie than that. My suggestion would be to set aside preconceived notions and go see it.

            It is 1935. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the articulate debate coach at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He will use all his powers of example and persuasion to give his students the weapons of words to fight their way out of the culture they were born in. Based loosely on a true story, the movie takes the debate team from its raw beginnings to a heralded debate at Harvard. So much, so predictable.

            Denzel Washington, who directed and stars, fastens our eyes to the sight of a lynching in progress, the victim hung from a tree and set afire to the delight of his torturers below. And this one act is just the actual symbol of what we have been feeling since the movie began: the random, brutal, humiliation of the every day life of southern blacks at the hands of redneck southern whites who hold the power of life and death.

            Feel the humiliation again when James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) is proudly driving his family along a country road. Farmer, with a Ph.D from Boston University, is the president of Wiley College. He accidentally hits a hog owned by a poor white farmer, an ignorant ugly being who knows he has the power granted by his culture to inflict shame on the Farmer family. The accomplished father can do nothing to protect his family. James Farmer, his wife, and his children learn the lesson well: there is no recourse.

            There will not be legal recourse until the unanimous decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education grants it in 1954. Between the bookend dates of ’35 and ’54, the culture of the Jim Crow south had its way. This movie gives us a searing reminder of the indignities endured during those two decades. Watch young James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, no relation) gain his real life education the hard way while internalizing the tools his teacher gives him. He will grow up to found CORE. while his peers find their various paths to the civil rights movement after the Brown case hands them the legal basis for their actions.

            If for no other reason, go see this movie just for the scene between Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington when they clash in disagreement. They are superb and you will not forget them. While the student debates are badly flawed, the incidents that inflame the young debaters are mesmerizing. They still resonate today – and will beyond the life spans of most of us. Denzel Washington and a fine cast have flung us into the core symbols of our past that still haunt us.


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