The Great Debaters
Posted on May 12, 2008 at 6:00 pm
In 1935, the debate team from a tiny all-black college took on the top white team in the country and they won. This is that story, Oprah-fied to be sure (Winfrey’s company produced the film), but powerfully told by director Denzel Washington, who also stars as the team’s coach, distinguished poet Melvin B. Tolson.
“We are the most powerful people in America because we have the most important job in America — the education of our young people.” The characters declare themselves from the beginning and the movie does, too. Winfrey and Washington are here to teach us, and their first lesson is that we can locate our own source of power. It is deeply moving to see these characters refuse to allow themselves to be diminished by a society that is devoting incaclulable resources to oppressing them. We first see one of the future members of the debate team, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) standing at a bus stop next to an empty bench marked “Whites Only.”
The most is most engrossing early on, when the students are trying out for the debate team and learning how to compete. The lessons on what makes an argument powerful and on what makes the debater powerful are presented with an electrifying vitality and the young stars (Smollett, Nate Parker as Lowe, and Denzel Whitaker — no relation to Washington or co-star Forest Whitaker as James Farmer, Jr.) keep up with the veteran actors every step of the way.
The movie falters when it goes beyond what is necessary to establish historical context until it becomes a distraction. The best part is in the first half, when Tolson is explaining to the students what it takes to make a persuasive argument and what it takes to defeat an opponent. Diversions into labor organizing and encounters with Jim Crow-era bigotry, including a lynching, take away from the focus on what the students and learning and what it inspires them to do. We get the feeling that some compromises were made because the film-makers did not trust the story or their audience; they assume that today’s young people do not appreciate history enough to understand what these students faced in 1935 without a recap and that they will not appreciate the achievement of the real-life heroes it portrays without some simplification, dramatization, and, of course, a love triangle.
The performances of the three young stars, their moments in the classroom and practices with Tolson, and Washington’s sensitive direction keep the movie engrossing and meaningful. Ultimately, as it should be, what carries the day is the power of the arguments made by these young people and our recognition that it is forming these positions that will ultimately lead to the foundation of the civil rights era — which, itself, makes telling this story both possible and necessary.
Parents should know that this film includes a non-explicit sexual situation, drinking, smoking, and a graphic scene of lynching with characters in peril. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of faith and prayer.
Families who see this movie should learn more about the rules of debate (“where your weapons are your words”) and what makes a persuasive argument. They might want to watch a local high school debate to compare it to the debates in this film. They should also learn more about Jim Crow-era laws and the prevalence of (ostensibly illegal) lynching in the 19th and early 20th century. How does “we do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do” apply to you? How do you find, take back and keep “your righteous mind?” Why did Tolson want the students to focus on the judge rather than their opponents? Why was it important for them to debate Harvard?
If you like this, try: Remember the Titans (also with Washington) and The Ernest Green Story about different stages in the journey — still underway — toward truely equal treatment of African-Americans. And every family should learn the poetry of Langston Hughes, like the one quoted by Tolson: “I, too, sing America./I am the darker brother./They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes,/But I laugh,/And eat well,/And grow strong./Tomorrow,/I’ll sit at the table/When company comes./Nobody’ll dare/Say to me,/’Eat in the kitchen,’/Then./Besides,/They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed, —-/I, too, am America.”