Over the course of my many and varied years, few things enflame my passions more than racism. In my early college days, I recall seeing Neo-Nazi propaganda scrawled on bathroom stalls and furiously challenging their authors to fights. They never materialized. When I hear people today spouting racial ignorance, my blood still boils. I have to tamp down on the desire to start shouting. I sometimes imagine punching them in the face. These are not Christian thoughts. What gets me going is the blinding, arbitrary, and appalling stupidity of these stances. It is only made worse when the misguided supporters of such dumb ideologies seem to believe in the rightness of their position. My Faith tells me that everyone, even those who believe that the color one’s skin determines the content of their character, is redeemable. While it may appear contradictory given my stated thoughts, I earnestly believe that the path to redemption is not violence. It is my unfortunate humanness that tells me that I can make people see the errors of their ways with my fists. What is better is the tactics you see in a film like The Great Debaters (2007).
The Great Debaters begins in 1935 against the backdrop of the Great Depression in Marshall, Texas. It is the home of the African American institution of higher learning known as Wiley College. Its headmaster, Dr. James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), is delivering a speech to the incoming freshman, his fourteen-year-old son James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) among them. A little distance away is a juke-joint, an off-the-beaten path locale of all manner of licentious behavior. It is there that we find another Wiley student, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker). He is drinking with a woman who turns out to be married, and when her husband shows up, Henry is goaded into a brawl. He is saved from a stabbing by the larger man by Wiley College professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington). Also arriving at the school is college transfer Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). Between James Jr., Henry, and Samantha, all three end up in Professor Tolson’s literature course on the first day of school. They also go out for the debate team, tryouts for which are held at Professor Tolson’s house later that evening. Unsurprisingly, all three end up on the team, along with the one holdover from the previous year, Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). Together, they set out to take on other African American schools throughout the South. With Hamilton and Henry being the primary debaters, and alternates James Jr. and Samantha providing research, they go on a win streak that earns them a great deal of attention. There is always hiccup, though, is there not? The reason why Professor Tolson was out where he was at the beginning, not dressed in a manner befitting a man of his station, is because he is a labor organizer, attempting to form a union of Southern tenant farmers of all races. James Jr. discovers this as he comes back from a school dance and sees Professor Tolson slink off into the woods. Following his teacher, James Jr. arrives in a barn in time for the meeting to be broken up by a posse put together by the local sheriff. James Jr. and Professor Tolson barely escape, and the latter swears the former to secrecy. Despite this, word gets out, and Hamilton’s parents force him to quit the team because they do not want their son associating with a suspected communist. This occurs on the eve of them accepting an invitation to debate a white school in Oklahoma. Taking Hamilton’s place is Samantha. What complicates this new arrangement, though, is Henry. The two had become romantically involved (much to James Jr.’s chagrin). Yet, on their way to their next debate they encounter a lynching. The experience affects them all, particularly Henry, who promptly leaves their lodgings, returning later drunk and with another woman. Distraught, Samantha quits the team, and an unprepared James Jr. is thrust to the podium, leading to their first loss. What renews Professor Tolson’s spirits upon their return to Marshall is a letter from Harvard University asking that they come to Boston to debate their team. This also brings Samantha back, giving Henry a well-deserved slap across the cheek in the process. However, Professor Tolson cannot travel north with them, owing to his probation following an earlier arrest for his organizing activities. When they get to Boston, the subject of the debate is changed, and they must work together to create the best arguments. Henry also decides to give James Jr. another chance, adjuring him to speak the truth. The subsequent verbal match is broadcast by radio throughout the country. Their subject is whether or not civil disobedience is a moral weapon in the fight for justice. It comes down to James, who wins the bout for Wiley by talking about the lynching they witnessed.
With moments like lynchings, The Great Debaters is sometimes difficult to watch. Not only is it set in a time of great economic difficulty, but it is also the height of Jim Crow segregation in the South, and the country. For decades, the separation of races in society was held up as the only way maintain equitable treatment for everyone. In short, it was separate, but anything but equal, which is also a line in the movie. When you see the way African Americans are treated in movies like this, you want to see wrongs righted. At one point, Professor Tolson gives his team the historical background of the term “lynching.” It is an accurate one, and, briefly, it is meant to reinforce all the stereotypes on which racism is predicated. It is so wrong, and yet the ones it victimized were so powerless to stop it when the mob, with the tacit approval of local authorities, allowed it to happen. Because of this, you can understand why Henry, when they initially pull up to the site of the lynching, wants to take his knife and cut down the victim. It did not matter that the poor fellow is already dead, hung and burnt to a cinder. Henry just wants to do something, and when he cannot, he turns to the bottle. These feelings are summed up by James Jr. in the final debate. The Harvard team makes a compelling case: nothing that erodes the rule of law can be considered moral. This Catholic is pleased when one of the counters to this is St. Augustine’s principal that an unjust law is no law at all. Yet, the most compelling case comes when James Jr. talks about the lynching. There was nothing on the books in the South that allowed for whites to hang blacks based on whatever perceived slight motivated the awful act. A lynching was extra-legal, and exactly the kind of thing against which the Harvard team warned.
The most powerful part of The Great Debaters is during Wiley’s debate against the school from Oklahoma. They are trading words over the issue of whether or not institutions of learning should be integrated. One of the white debaters acknowledges that what is going on is wrong. African Americans are receiving a substandard education because of Jim Crow. Still, he says that to force upon the South that for which it is not ready would be folly, and thus the time for justice was not now. In her rebuttal, Samantha righteously says the obvious, that the time for justice is always right now. It gets me choked up thinking about it. This is not something I typically do in my reviews, but I encourage you to watch the clip when you get the opportunity. It is the kind of thing that enflames the passion I spoke of in the first paragraph because, darn it, she is one hundred percent correct. At the same time, I would point to something Samantha says during the Harvard debate. In countering the supposition that, since the United States is a democracy, majorities decide what is right in wrong, she comes back with the truth: your conscience determines right and wrong. This comes from the training Professor Tolson gives the team, which this Catholic loves. Part of it is to get them to learn to clearly pronounce and project their voices. It is the words, though, that are special. They are told that the judge of their words is God and to speak the truth. To echo more of what James Jr. says towards the end, any time our God-given conscience encounters something so blindingly wrong as racism, we want to lash out. Civil disobedience is speaking out against such a status quo, and something James Jr. tells his audience that they should hope he chooses in the face of such terrible events rather than the alternative.
I whole-heartedly recommend The Great Debaters. There is some pre-marital sex in it, but no nudity, and the scene is brief. It should also be mentioned that there is some dramatization of the history. Wiley College and the characters in it were real. One of the changes they made, though, revolve around the climactic debate, which was actually against the University of Southern California. Otherwise, you are getting a pretty good window into a previous era, and one that should be remembered today.