Several recent surveys have shown that public speaking outranks death in lists of things that Americans
most fear. I hope that preferring to die rather than to speak in public doesn’t keep audiences from
seeing a gem of a movie, The Great Debaters, a true story about the 1935 debate team of little Wiley
College, a black university in Marshall Texas.
While the film is about the debaters, it is only peripherally about the debates themselves, and it isn’t until
the movie’s climax, a nail-biting debate against an Ivy League school, that we see more than small
snippets of the debates themselves. The 4 person debate team is made up of womanizing Henry Lowe
(Nate Parker) who is torn between a desire to travel and the wish to go off alone and read his life away,
determined Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) who wants to become Texas’ 3rd black female lawyer,
clowning Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) who worries about their coach’s politics, and 14 year
old James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who is academically gifted, but still little more than an
The team’s coach, Melvin Tolson, is portrayed by Denzel Washington who also directed the film. Tolson
has all of the authoritative presence we have come to expect from Washington, and a touch of dignified
silver in his hair which we have not. Tolson wants his undefeated team to debate an “Anglo-Saxon” team,
a shot they eventually get. He uses his gift as a persuader to attempt to organize farm workers, a move
more than unpopular with the local law enforcement, the town bigwigs, and even with the Texas rangers.
Tolson is not the movie’s principal character. That would be James, the son of the college dean (Forest
Whitaker, no relation). Denzel Whitaker is an actor to watch. He infuses young James with youthful
idealism, academic drive, and a desire for his stern father’s approval, yet also with a juvenile curiosity
and a naiveté about the nature of his world, especially evident in his fierce disappointment with his father
over what he views as cowardice when his father is confronted by bigots. (James Farmer, Jr. went on to
co-found the Congress of Racial Equality and he is considered to be one of the “big four” of the Civil
This is not a sports movie, but it is an underdog movie just as much as anything from The Bad News
Bears to Miracle to Remember the Titans (another Denzel Washington film), and I found myself actually
nervous for the debaters as much as for any Casey at the Bat.
Marshall Texas in 1935 was Jim Crow South, and almost as thick as to make it a character, racial
tension pervades the atmosphere of the movie. This was a place where the college dean (Forest
Whitaker) a brilliant family man who knew 7 languages, could be cruelly harassed by uneducated white
yahoos who called him “boy,” a place where benches were emblazoned “whites only,” and even where
Tolson himself made a point of telling the team about William Lynch, an overseer so vicious that his
name is the origin for the word “lynch.”
The Great Debaters repeatedly brings home the day to day realities faced by intellectual powerhouses
seen as less than the giants they were, simply by virtue of race. Yet all of these people have an unfailing
belief in the power of words to change things, and this power isn’t just seen during debates but when
Tolson talks to sharecroppers and when James Sr. persuades the sheriff to act justly.
The power of words is a strong theme in this movie and one so beautifully wrought that I fear my own
meager vocabulary can’t adequately convey it. The Great Debaters may not make you prefer public
speaking to death, but you’ll be mesmerized by some who do.
|The Great Debaters
a movie review by Heather Craig
|*Heather Craig lives in Davis, California.