By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 10, 2008
“The Great Debaters” is an inspirational movie that demonstrates the value of hard work and determination in achieving one’s goals.
Set in East Texas in 1935, “The Great Debaters” presents the story of the debate team at Wiley College. Led by their coach, Professor Melvin Tolson, the team’s unbeaten record prompts an historic invitation to debate at Harvard University, a first for a team from an all-black college. Inspired by a true story, the film also explores some of the social issues of the era, as the debaters and their coach must face the challenges of living in the Jim Crow South. The film paints this period in interesting detail.
In many ways, the main characters of the film are a privileged group, living inside the nurturing college community. Once they step outside the confines of that safe haven, however, viewers see the constant threats that they must face—Tolson risks his career and his safety to help organize a group of sharecroppers into a union to prevent them being taken advantage of; the president of the college and his family are put into mortal danger by a close encounter with a local farmer; and most central to the movie’s themes, the team comes across a lynching as they travel to a debate meet, an experience that profoundly affects each of them.
The young people and their mentors are able to make it through these dangers. More than that, they learn from each experience and these dangers make them stronger and more prepared to face a difficult and dangerous world. Denzel Washington steps outside of his usual role as actor to direct this film that passionately portrays the values of standing up for what you think is right and just, even if it is a difficult and dangerous stand to take.
“The Great Debaters” is strengthened by a number of fine performances. Washington ably takes on the role of Tolson, showing how he can be both frustrating and likable to those around him. Forest Whitaker has perhaps the most difficult role as James Farmer Sr., the president of the college. In one respect, he is a stern disciplinarian and demanding father. Instead of making that his defining characteristic, however, the film also shows how he must swallow his pride for the sake of his family when he runs up against an ignorant farmer, and it shows his loyalty and dignity in the portrayal of his friendship with Tolson. Whitaker gives a nuanced performance that makes all of these aspects of his character believable.
The three young people who play the great debaters also turn in performances that go beyond stereotypes. Nate Parker is Henry Lowe, a gifted and sensitive young man who likes to have a little too much of a good time. Jurnee Smollett is Samantha Booke, who wants to be the first woman on the debate team. Denzel Whitaker is James Farmer Jr., who must live up to his father’s lofty expectations but also fit into with his teammates, all at the young age of 14. In many ways, this is the pivotal role in the film, as Farmer represents the innocence and hope of everyone in the community. Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either of his namesakes, though he does bear a believable resemblance to Whitaker) does a fine job of combining the enthusiasm of youth with a gravity that he picks up with experience.
“The Great Debaters” demonstrates faith in God in a matter of fact way that shows it is a part of the characters’ everyday lives. The Farmer family is shown praying together, and Farmer Sr. often bases his lectures and messages to his students on Scripture. Henry Lowe is also shown reading a Bible and using its messages.
Like many sports films, “The Great Debaters” is a little predictable in that the underdog team comes from behind, faces many difficulties and wins in the end. In this case, though, the predictability is beside the point. The main drive in the film is seeing how these people decide when to take a stand and how they draw courage and inner strength from their convictions in order to successfully take on any number of opponents, both inside and outside the debating arena. In addition, it is enjoyable to watch intelligent people working hard and using the power of words and ideas and education to fight their battles. In short, “The Great Debaters” gives a convincing argument for the power of positive values and determination.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.