In 1935, Wiley College, a small Black college in Marshall, Texas defeated defending national champions University of Southern California in a debate. In terms of Black History, this story ofAfrican-Americans breaking the color barrier in competitive debate is a small victory. Many civil rights milestones, which need not be named, have shadowed this event.
This story of three college students and their wily debate coach shows what makes African-American history so special. We saw it inGlory Road, with the first all-Black starting lineup to win a NCAA basketball champonship. We saw it Men of Honor about the first ever African-American navy diver. It’s those little victories that happened all over country which catapulted civil rights into a great movement. We basically know what happens in The Great Debaters, before we see it. It’s the classic David and Goliath tale where the underdog defeats the giant.Denzel Washington plays the inspirational professor/coach Mel Tolson who shapes his debate team consisting of Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smolett) and 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), polishing their oratory styles while sending letters to all white universities requesting matches. The team applies its skills in an ultimate test at the end of the movie. Yet, this is not about who they beat – in this case Harvard University – it’s about leadership. It’s about racism. It’s about the power of words James’s dad (Forest Whitaker) who was one of 25 African-American men with a PhD at the time, is driving his family down a dirt road when he accidently hits and kills a hog. The hog is property of white farmers. Caught in a back road with irate white boys, James’s dad basically has to shuck and jive, with a series of “yessuhs” and “nossuhs,” to steer his family from danger.
Later in the movie, Tolson turns down the wrong road on the way to Howard University and the team witnesses a lynching by an angry mob of white men. During both occasions, the Black protagonists go from paragons of African-American advancement to just Black folks in the wrong place at the wrong time in a matter of seconds.The Great Debaters places a special emphasis on the social significance of each topic during the movie’s actual debate. It’s not about Wiley College’s impressive ability to argue, it’s about how pertinent their words are to the world around them. In the team’s competition against Oklahoma City University, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) argues for school integration.
In a passionate rebuttle she proclaims, “Is it gonna come tomorrow, is it gonna come next week, in a hundred years, never? I say the time for justice, the time for equality, the time for freedom always, is always right now!” She says all this in front of a big segregated audience. It comes as no coincidence that the final debate topic is civil disobedience in the midst of racial inequality.
The backdrop makes Farmer’s winning speech all the more poignant, in which he fervently concludes, “…I have a right, even a duty to resist with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.” Until The Great Debaters, the team’s coach, Professor Melvin B. Tolson, a contemporary of the Harlem Renaissance, died in relative obscurity. One or two of his poems can be found in anthologies onAfrican-American literature. James L. Farmer Jr., one of the team’s members, became a leader in the civil rights movement leader, but his contributions are of course not as celebrated as those of Martin Luther King and other more canonized leaders. This tale is still inspirational and momentous, adding another cherished fable to the tradition of Black freedom.