The Great Debaters

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune calls the new film, The Great Debaters, a "Good story, well told." So it is. Featuring great stars like Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, this movie also introduces the audience to some new stars who should get recognition for playing great supporting roles as college students and debaters. Critic Michael Phillips also wonders, in his review in the Tribune, "if  people will go for it." I did. I loved it. It works and it inspires. I think most of you will go for it too. Let me try to tell you why.

The film is pure Hollywood, ending and all. It is full of cliches, simplistic and moving teaching moments and a great human story. But then what is wrong with all that, unless you are both a film critic and a cynic? This is the quintessential story of the underdog and it will likely sell to the public after it has what I think will be a brisk opening on Christmas day. (I saw it this afternoon and confess that I clapped, and shed a tear or two, with those around me when the film ended!)

The story is what we call historical-fiction. It is set in the pre-Civil Rights era of Marshall, Texas, where racism still reigned under the blessings of unjust laws to back it up. Under teacher Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at a small Negro school, Wiley College, a debate team of four students was formed to teach students not only the skills of formal debate but the joys of using logic to good ends. Tolson, both a famous twentieth century poet and a genuine educator (as well as a secret supporter of developing unions in Texas), is played beautifully by Denzel Washington. He is, as always, simply superb. (This man is such a great actor that there are seemingly no roles that he cannot pull off. He is a huge star in American Gangster, where plays the "bad guy" and Russell Crowe is featured as the "good guy.")

Wiley College eventually defeats every major African-American college in the land and thus challenges Harvard to debate them, since Southern white schools refuse them. Harvard accepts. (I will not give the story away but you can guess!) But the real story here is not about debate, though there are some dramatic scenes when the debaters appear to be so charming and truly interesting. The real story is about hope, determination and race.

The young debaters have numerous encounters with the injustice of the Jim Crowe era, even coming close to suffering the fate of a lynched black man they unfortunately stumble upon on a back road scene in Texas. The events are presented in melodramatic fashion thus you feel as if you are emotionally placed in a vice between justice and injustice throughout. Some scenes overplay this aspect but the basic story feels about right to this reviewer, who grew up in the South in the 1950s and struggled with Jim Crowe so much so that I made numerous white Christians quite angry with me as both a child and teenager. (I still remember the lecture I got from an esteemed president of the Southern Baptist Convention about keeping my Northern views out of the calm and Christian South when I suggested to the youth of the congregation there was profound racism in their ranks, one of the most famous Southern Baptist churches of the era.)

The story behind The Great Debaters is that this gifted debate team produced some of the most important Civil Rights leaders of the era that would follow in the 1940s and 1950s. You don’t learn this until the film is over and the facts are presented as a part of the closing credits. I will, once again, not give this away but you will surprised unless you are a careful historian of the period of time before Martin Luther King and the modern Civil Rights movement.

I recommend that everyone see this movie. This is not a family film but older teens, and all adults, should see it. Christians ought to revisit the whole issue of how we should respond to unjust laws as part of the experience.

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