The Great Debaters
Melvin Tolson calls it the "hot spot."
He marks it in chalk—a white box drawn on a wood floor. For Tolson, it's more than a box: It's a battleground. And one by one, he invites would-be debaters to step inside and fight—not with guns or knives, but with diction, logic and passion.
"Debate is blood sport," he says. "It is combat."
Forty-some wannabe word-slingers step inside the hot spot. Four are left standing. One is Hamilton Burgess, who eventually leaves the team when Tolson's radical politics start interfering. Another is Henry Lowe, the rebellious ne'er-do-well who has a passion for strong drink and pretty women. Another is Samantha Booke, the first female debater ever to make the team; she has ambitions of being a lawyer. And then there's James Farmer Jr., the awkward 14-year-old son of the most educated man in Marshall, Texas—and who would, over the next 40 years, cast one of America's largest shadows in the civil rights movement.
Together, they become the crux for one of American history's grandest, brainiest underdog stories.
The Great Debaters was inspired by Wiley College, a traditionally African-American school in Marshall, and Melvin Tolson, its iconic debate coach. During the Great Depression—an age when segregation was in full swing and black Americans were seen by many white Americans as intellectually inferior—Wiley was an unlikely debating powerhouse. The school took on all comers and beat most of them, stringing together 10 years of dominance. A 1935 face-off with the University of Southern California for an (unrecognized) national championship drew thousands of spectators.
Granted, The Great Debaters punts USC in favor of Harvard. It takes other liberties, as well. But it still shines a spotlight on a tumultuous societal turning point, when some of the first seeds of the civil rights movement were being sown by a tiny debate team in a Texas backwater.
"Majorities do not decide what is right or what is wrong," Samantha says during an impassioned speech. "Your conscience does." That speech and this film are ringing rejections of relativism and eloquent defenses of the idea that there is such a thing as right and wrong—and that we can all know the difference if only we have the education to see it and the courage to look for it.
Tolson and James' father, James Farmer Sr., are two righteous-minded men with a passion for education but a different understanding of how one must address the evils of the day. Tolson tries to salve poverty by organizing the region's sharecroppers into a union. He tells his students how lynching didn't just kill the victim: It cowed black America into a state of working subservience. "Keep the body," he says. "Take the mind." Debate, Tolson believes, is the way to give his young charges back their minds—a way to empower them to both think for themselves and defend their ideals. "Education is the only way out," he says.
The elder James would agree with most of that. What he doesn't approve of are Tolson's politics, and he tells the instructor he doesn't want his son "corrupted" by their influence. A minister and professor at Wiley, Farmer Sr. speaks seven languages and is far more educated than the local white farmers who call him "boy." He puts up with it for the most part—much to his son's chagrin—but when Tolson is thrown in prison for his union activities, Farmer Sr. comes to his aid, confronting the sheriff. He quotes St. Augustine: "An unjust law is no law at all."
The debaters, meanwhile, uneasily navigate their way between right and wrong. Henry, for instance, has a penchant for sneaking off to speakeasies and one-night stands when the going gets tough, but in the end the debater sacrificially relinquishes his spot in the climactic debate to make room for James.
Young James soaks up the influences around him as he feels his way to manhood. He wants desperately to please his somewhat distant father, and he finds a new connection with him when Dad stands up for Tolson. When a drunken and unfaithful Henry unwisely decides he wants to talk to Samantha (his girlfriend), James restrains him, first verbally, then physically.
A prickly ethical dilemma confronts James after he promises Tolson that he will guard an important secret: When the elder James asks him, in essence, to reveal it because he's worried that James is in some sort of trouble—or into some sort of mischief—James' first inclination is to, unfortunately, lie. He's quickly caught in it. And he then finds the higher moral ground and says, simply, that he's very sorry but he can't talk about it.
(Families will surely disagree about whether the situation is successfully or rightly handled onscreen. And that may be a good thing in this case. Because how teens interact with their parents when it comes to this sort of thing is an important issue to talk through. And this scene will certainly inspire a talk to two.)
Wiley is a Methodist college, and faith is treated with respect, reverence and as a catalyst for positive change.
The film opens with Farmer Sr. thundering out a sermon. He quotes the Apostle Paul: "When I became a man, I put away all childish things." And he mulls over Scripture in his study, though sometimes at the expense of time with his son. When he and his son get into a heated argument, we see James' mom silently praying. Likewise, before the climactic match with Harvard—just when James is to take the stage in a speech to be broadcast across the country—we see the rest of the Farmer family praying back home around the radio. We see Wiley's student body in prayer, too, before the debate begins.
Tolson makes his debaters recite a motivational chant that stresses the fact that truth lies outside the realm of debate. It declares that the debater's judge is God, "Because He decides who wins or loses, not my opponent." The big secret James is guarding begins with the lad telling Tolson, "I swear on a stack of Bibles I won't tell anybody."
When Farmer Sr. confronts Tolson about his politics—and insists that the man not involve his son in them—Tolson lightheartedly defends himself by saying, "Jesus was a radical." Farmer Sr., joking back, says the asylums are full of folks who confuse themselves with Jesus. "I'm not confused, I'm convinced," Tolson says with a chuckle.
Henry has three obvious sexual encounters. The first is with a married woman; he's shown running his hand up her (clothed) thigh. The last features him passionately kissing another girl as he's leaving her car, her leg wrapped around him during the smooch. The middle romp—with Samantha—is by far the most explicit. We see the two kiss in a rowboat, and then the scene shifts to Henry's bayou shack, where we see the pair writhing around in bed together. They're obviously unclothed and obviously having sex. (We see them from a distance when they're mostly under the covers.) Later, Henry gets out of bed dressed in only a pair of boxers.
Henry frequents sexually charged hangouts, where people are shown gyrating and groping (backsides) sensuously. James, who has a crush on Samantha, fantasizes about dancing with her, then the two of them kissing and caressing.
On the road to a debate tourney, the team drives headlong into a just-finished lynching. The smoldering body of a black man dangles from a tree and above a fire. The mob proceeds to throw rocks at the Tolson's vehicle and run after it.
Tolson's description of historical lynchings—including a man being ripped apart by two horses—is just as horrific. Henry chimes in later, saying, "Sometimes they skin you alive." You don't doubt him. Especially when you see the aftereffects of a police "interrogation," in which a man's been so badly beaten that his face is barely recognizable.
Someone threatens Farmer Sr. with a gun. A town posse breaks up a would-be union meeting by crashing into the barn where it's held, chasing and beating its attendees, and burning the barn down. An angry mob shouts outside the police department, calling for Tolson to be freed.
Farmer Sr. slaps his son across the face during a heated argument. Samantha slaps Henry. Henry gets into a fight with the husband of one of his conquests and threatens to knife him. (He's pulled away before he can.) Henry and James tussle.
Crude or Profane Language
Four or five s-words. Ten or more n-words. Jesus' name is misused twice. Several characters exclaim "h---" with some regularity.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Henry drinks from a flask several times. He shares the alcohol with others, and once hands the flask to the 14-year-old James to take a swig. James takes him up on the offer. We also see Henry stagger around after a night on the town, apparently drunk. Tolson smokes a pipe.
Other Negative Elements
Because of his legal difficulties, Tolson is forbidden from leaving the state when his team travels to Harvard. He puts them on the train and waves goodbye. But then, during the debate, we see him in the balcony.
Accompanying me to the advance screening of The Great Debaters was Chris Jeub, president of Training Minds Ministry and a Christian debate coach in Colorado. Afterwards, Jeub said the film did a good job of conveying the reality of debate—the fear debaters experience before stepping up to the podium, and the thrill they get when they string together a persuasive, passionate argument.
But he said he wouldn't want his 15-year-old debating daughter to see it. The lynching scene would be just too brutal for her.
And yes, that's a difficult scene to watch: Lynching was still a rabid reality when the Wiley College debate team was in its heyday. That grim backdrop makes The Great Debaters fairly mature fare. It takes moviegoers into a part of American history some would rather forget—when Southern doors, drinking fountains and bus stop seats were often branded with the words "white only." And it doesn't shy away from this ugly, sometimes brutal period—or the scars, literal and psychological, it left behind.
Also difficult to deal with—to the point of excluding some intended viewers who otherwise would revel in this kind of message movie—are vulgar language and sexual material that just didn't need to be included.
Partial redemption lies in the idea that the story is mainly about hope, not hate. (And not really about sexual misdeeds, either.) It's about true empowerment, which requires the passionate engagement of one's mind and will. It rejects postmodernist wish-wash for a clear understanding of truth. It indirectly rejects much of today's hip-hop culture and suggests that the only bling worth anything is a college diploma, a polished mind and a shiny debate trophy.
In an age in which 50 Cent is a role model and Snoop Dogg has a "family" reality show, The Great Debaters doles out idealism. It shamelessly glamorizes education, perseverance and the beauty of the human intellect, and it reminds us that the path to equality and justice doesn't run through MTV.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Denzel Washington as Melvin Tolson; Nate Parker as Henry Lowe; Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke; Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr.; Forest Whitaker as James Farmer Sr.