The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington, is an inspirational movie about a specific debate team overcoming racism in the segregated South. It is based off of the debate team of Wiley College, a small religious black school in East Texas, during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Under the guidance of their coach Melvin Tolson, the team kept prevailing week after week against every single opponent. They started competing with other black schools but eventually worked their way to triumph over prestigious white schools as well. Their most significant win was against the all-white Ivy League team, Harvard.
With the team’s encouraging story, this movie not only inspired people to make a change, but also presented how even students can make the world of difference. Although their actions made a big difference in fighting for what they believe, the students expressing their opinions by how they would present themselves is what eventually won over the crowd in the final victory. The leadership theme portrays greatly all throughout the movie by using body language, noble examples of mentoring, and finally a student becomes a leader himself.
In the movie, the students’ body language itself truly shows a form of leadership that is unexplainable. Throughout all of the debates, one could see their passion in their eyes. For example, during the first dispute against a white team Samantha debates that it is possible for blacks to get a degree at a white college. The main part of her debate that wins over the audience is how emotional she gets about the subject. It also shows her confidence and deep passion in what she believes. Another moment that someone steps up to the plate in a leadership role is when Farmer’s dad comes to the sheriff office to help bail Tolson out of jail. Earlier in the movie we see Farmer Senior let the pig farmers walk all over him.
These cruel individuals make him pay for the pig he hit, but not only that they throw the money on the ground and make him pick it up. Farmer sits in the car in awe because he cannot believe what is happening. Therefore, at the station Farmer is beyond proud of his dad for finally standing up for what he knows is right. Farmer Senior stands up calmly to the sheriff and the confidence in his posture is what won the battle. Also, during this scenario the entire debate team comes to jail to support their professor.
Showing their encouragement with poise and certainty, the team does not have to say anything because everything that needs to be said someone could see from their body language. From the start this was not just a team, but also a group of people that have come together like a family. Therefore, the movie does show how what one says could have a huge impact, but also if one should go beneath the words he or she could discover much more.
Not only does the leadership portray through ones body language, but also, through mentoring and even one of the students, Lowe becomes a mentor himself. Having a mentor could strongly aid someone to succeed. Professor Melvin Tolson, their debate coach, revolutionizes the small college with his big ideas and unshakable hope for justice. Taking these young souls under his wings, Tolson taught them how to break the chains of inequality and ignorance with the words they spoke and how they spoke them on the debating stage. A strong example is how Tolson takes Lowe under his wing. From the beginning Lowe has been a troublemaker.
We first meet him when he is drunk at a bar; not only is he drunk, but also starts a fight with another man for getting intimate with his wife. During the entire movie Lowe handles all of their hardships in the worst ways he could. Even though he is not the most responsible when it comes to dealing with difficulty, the professor sees something in him and makes him the team’s leader when they go to Harvard. Having to stay up all night preparing for the debate, Farmer and Lowe could not agree on anything so Lowe runs out.
When he comes back though, the audience can see a different side of him. He gets so emotional in the hotel room and acknowledges how much negative happenings have affected him. Being the strongest debater, he steps down and tells Farmer that he will debate instead. This is such a huge part in the movie because it shows that struggle is such an enormous part of values. Lowe finally understands that anyone with a voice and is passionate about what they believe in can express their opinion on stage; it did not have to it the best debater. He puts Farmer in the position to flourish and he does succeed because he takes the audience to a true-life story of the lynching. In the end, Lowe has become a mentor himself.
The leadership themes throughout the movie show that it takes struggle in order to realize ones values, look beneath someone’s words to find leadership, and mentoring can be a huge part of guidance. When the team had to go through hardships it eventually made them stronger and realize what they really wanted to fight for. Also, it is not always about what someone does that makes him or her a leader, but how he or she does it. When one of the debaters took stage what usually won over the audience is how they presented themselves.
Finally, the mentorship by Melvin Tolson is a main factor of the debate team’s success. His leadership is eventually passed down to Henry Lowe which helps the team come to a final victory against the Ivy-League school, Harvard. This movie is such an inspiration and portrays leadership unlike many other movies.