The Great Debaters
Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Produced by Todd Black, Kate Forte, Joe Roth, Denzel Washington, and Oprah Winfrey; directed by Denzel Washington; screenplay by Robert Eisele; cinematography by Philippe Rousselot; production design by David J. Bomba; costumes by Sharen Davis; edited by Hughes Winborne; original music by Peter Golub and James Newton Howard; starring Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forest Whitaker, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, Devyn A. Tyler, and Trenton McClain Boyd. Color, 123 mins. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release.

Appearing during a season when the presidential debates are commanding the airwaves, The Great Debaters couldn’t have planned a more opportune time to hit the screens. And praise for the film began even before the trailers had made the expected media rounds, and it continued right into the first weeks on the nation’s multiplex screens. It was a shoo-in for awards, viewers cooed, and Denzel Washington as Melvin Tolson, the film’s lead, would get the nod at the Oscars for his inspiring performance.  While the film garnered a few nominations from the Golden Globes, it received no Oscar nominations, which takes none of the luster from the uplifting film that most African Americans gladly embraced.

The film begins with Tolson, an English professor, auditioning students who will comprise his debating team. As he selects the members, their personalities are revealed and he lets them know that debating is a “blood sport.” After they are soundly prepped by Tolson, these students at Wiley College, a small all-black school in Texas, compile an envious record of victories, many against top white Southern institutions, thereby breaking the color barrier in several states. The climax occurs when the tiny school takes on mighty Harvard without the presence of their mentor.

Yes, it is a feel-good movie (and the underdogs win), but that is a welcome anomaly amid the seemingly endless flood of insipid fare so typical of Hollywood. Even so, there are a few troubling things about The Great Debaters that go beyond its predictability. Think of Glory Road, the movie about Texas Western’s upset of mighty Kentucky for the NCAA basketball championship in 1966, and you have the template.

But The Great Debaters is not just a run-of-the-mill film. The scenario is a bit more complex, as evident particularly from the opening scenes in which a deep-woods juke joint is alive with gut-bucket blues and shimmying behinds, cross-cut with calmer church scenes. The contrast between the sacred and the profane, the darkness and light, and later between black and white residents—as well as the often playful intensity between the debaters and their mentor—places the film a few notches above the quotient template. Moreover, the music and cinematography firmly situate and complement the narrative thread. 

An interesting but undeveloped subtheme is the tug of war between Tolson and the father of one his protégés. When Tolson (Washington) and James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) square off on philosophical and religious grounds, the movie has an exciting scene of dramatic intensity, but, alas, it is apparently resolved, and Farmer, Jr. remains on the team and leads it to victory. Washington and Whitaker are two of the cinema’s most compelling actors and their ongoing debate would have added moments of power in a film centered on talking without a lot of action.

Reviews of the film have been mixed, but generally it has received glowing commentaries, though a few are disgruntled because the African American debaters are never given a counterintuitive argument and thus retain the high moral ground. Isn’t it about time the oppressed are given a leg up?  The Great Debaters isn’t the only film about debating released last year. Rocket Science, a film where policy is debated, won the Dramatic Directing Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Resolved is a documentary that takes a fresh look at the whole style and format of debating. 

Those on the left will love The Great Debaters’ pluckiness for including at least a cameo scene in which Tolson, after founding a forensic society, secretly organizes sharecroppers for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. One wishes more had been said and shown about Tolson’s radical politics, and his compassion for downtrodden black and white farmers. But this was, perhaps, no oversight on the filmmakers’ part, since neither Tolson (in his newspaper columns) nor his biographer Robert Farnsworth offer more than a passing comment on his late-night political activities. “Tolson was able to fit Marxist assumptions about class neatly into his Christian training about the rich and the poor,” Farnsworth wrote. “Traditional Christian contempt for the vanity of worldly possessions fitted nicely the Marxist contempt for the bourgeoisie and their concern for personal possessions and profit. Tolson did not become a member of the Communist Party. He was far too protective of his freedom to subject himself to the discipline of the party.”    

Political progressives will applaud, too, the lynching scene, and the rhetoric that never misses a beat in assailing the menace of Jim Crow. It’s for these same reasons that those tending to the right might find the movie less than appealing.

Between these polarities of taste and direction are questions of historical accuracy that most reviewers have thus far missed, though its importance has little bearing on the film’s emotional power since we know how Hollywood handles history even in the capable hands of director Denzel Washington (and he succeeds remarkably here after his directorial debut with Antwone Fisher) and producer Oprah Winfrey. Moreover, it is not a biopic, but a film based on a true story. And for all the misgivings some have had about Washington and American Gangster, he more than redeems himself as Tolson.

True enough, the debate team from Wiley College did take on all comers and did triumph almost without exception in 1935, but its ultimate victory was against Southern California, not against Harvard, as depicted in the movie. This alteration was done, perhaps, to make the team’s victory all the more improbable against a school of greater intellectual heft. But it was an unnecessary inaccuracy that only points up a slew of others.

Indeed, James Farmer, Jr., who would later become a Civil Rights Movement icon and a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, was on the debate team as its youngest member, and Denzel Whitaker (not related to Washington or Forest Whitaker, who plays his father in the film) provides a winning performance. But to read Farmer’s recounting of these days in his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart, is to find only a few pages about this momentous occasion. One of the film’s most memorable lines is drawn from the book when Tolson asks Farmer what irony he sees in the name “Bethlehem Steel Corporation.”  “The Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem and Bethlehem Steel manufactures implements of war,” Farmer replied.

Although Farmer mentions several of his team members, only two of them are portrayed in the film, Hamilton Boswell, who we presume is Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), and Nate Parker’s Henry Lowe, a facsimile of Henry Heights.

The fact that Tolson, according to Farmer, smoked cigars and not a pipe, is just one of several unimportant changes that works against reality. There are three others that are worth mentioning for the lack of veracity. By 1935 the Harlem Renaissance was all but kaput but Tolson, who is best known for his long poem “Harlem Gallery” and “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia,” talks about it as though it is still culturally robust. For the most part the Depression was the first blow and then the deaths of Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, and A’Lelia Walker were the final blows to this once vibrant period.  Notably, too, some of the leading literary lights left Manhattan for other shores.  

The letter from Willie Lynch is cited but it didn’t become a popular document, fictive or otherwise, until the Nineties. George Fraser has it in his essay in Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America, a book I edited with Robert Allen. More than one historian has pointed out the anachronisms to show that it couldn’t have been written in 1712, as alleged. And there’s no mention or picture of Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) (nor is she mentioned in Farmer’s autobiography) in any of the documents I’ve seen to show that she was a debating member. If she was on the team, then it was highly unlikely that she was anything more than an alternate. Nonetheless, Jurnee Smollett is absolutely spellbinding in her portrayal of Booke, based on Henrietta Wells, who is still alive at ninety-six and was on the debate team four years before the victory over Southern California.

Fortunately, none of these historical concerns detracts from the ensemble of young actors under Washington’s direction, and Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is as visually compelling as Robert Eisele’s screenplay.

Still, you wonder how in the world they left out a very humorous incident that actually occurred, according to Hamilton Boswell. After being confronted by a white racist, Tolson knocks him to the ground. When he notices a mob of whites approaching, he jumps atop his fallen foe, and, in a moment of pure ingenuity, begins beating the man some more, all the while screaming “Don’t you dare say anything unpatriotic about America.” The mob is allayed.

In his autobiography Farmer also provides some gripping moments of racial tension the team encountered when traveling to debates throughout the South, several of which are even more life-threatening than those depicted in the film.

For all the nitpicking, The Great Debaters is a special film, and Boswell’s remarks merely show that what actually happened can be even more astonishing than the fiction created of Tolson and the debaters’ lives.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2