The Great Debaters: Historical Film Review

Categories: Film

The Great Debaters offers a fictionalized and limited account of the exploits of the award-winning Wiley College debate team headed by Melvin B. Tolson, an African-American English professor, during the Depression years. Beyond his academic duties, Tolson was an accomplished poet, journalist and social activist. Before this film was produced, very little was generally known about Wiley, a small college with only 400 students, or its debating team. The team had a remarkable record, going 10 straight years without a loss from 1929 to 1939.

What’s more, the team’s opponents included much larger black universities, including Fisk, Morehouse, Virginia Union, Lincoln, Wilberforce and Howard. Tolson’s debaters became so well known that they were invited to participate in the first interracial debate ever permitted. The contest, which took place in Oklahoma City in 1930, pitted Wiley College against the University of Oklahoma. Five years later, before an audience of 1,100, Tolson’s team won the national championship in a debate with the reigning champions from the University of Southern California.

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(In a seemingly unnecessary substitution, the film has a group from Harvard University as the opposing team for this historic event.)

Founded in 1873, Wiley College is one of the oldest black colleges west of the Mississippi River. It was established by the Freedman’s Bureau in the period called “Reconstruction” during the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, a time filled with hope among former slaves who yearned for equality, education and justice. This is the second film directed by Denzel Washington, following Antwone Fisher in 2003, a story about a youth embittered by traumas inflicted by the foster care system.

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While the subject matter of the current film raises important historical questions, its treatment tends to be predictable and clichéd. Washington does an admirable job portraying Professor Tolson. The winner of three Oscars, including one for best supporting actor, playing a runaway slave in the 1989 film Glory, he brings out the best in the younger members of the cast as well. In The Great Debaters, Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker) plays James Farmer, an early leader in the civil rights movement, whose conservative trajectory later found him joining the Republication administration of Richard Nixon as assistant secretary of health, education and welfare. Jurnee Smollett plays the role of Samantha Brooke, the only woman on the debate team.

Brooke’s character is loosely based on that of Henrietta Bell. Still alive in Houston, Texas, Bell gave a number of interviews following the film’s release. She recalled in particular the power of Tolson’s intellect and the struggle he conducted with students to read widely on questions of economics, history, philosophy and science. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film deal with the oppressive conditions of racism and the sheer terror of the Jim Crow system that dominated the South well into the twentieth century. The film opens with Professor James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker), one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. from Boston University, being terribly humiliated in front of his family by two white farmers after he mistakenly hit a hog that ran in front of his car. Unable to defy the farmers, he never looks them in the eye and agrees to hand over his monthly pay of $25, which represents far more than the hog is worth. In another scene, as the team is driving to participate in a debate, they encounter a black man hanging lifeless from a tree. The totally disfigured and barely human body is surrounded by whites who seem to take pleasure in what they have done. Lynching, organized as a community event, was commonplace as a means of terrorizing blacks and diverting and suppressing the anger of very oppressed sections of white workers.

Texas was third among states, after Mississippi and Georgia, in the total number of recorded lynchings. Between 1885 and 1942, records indicate that 468 mostly black men were lynched in Texas. Another interesting episode, barely mentioned in reviews of the film, is Tolson’s effort to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), a broad-based protest movement made up of black and white sharecroppers who had been driven off their land and forced into day labor. As the farmers convene a meeting to discuss their strength in unity, they come under attack from a vigilante mob. It is revealed later in the film that the local sheriff participated in the raid, along with racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. While The Great Debaters touches on important historical issues, very little is explained in the film about what was a tumultuous period of American history. Unless one has former knowledge of the year 1935—the height of the Great Depression in the US, a period dominated by mass unemployment, homelessness and hunger—it is not brought across in the film that it was within this context that figures like Melvin Tolson emerged.

The film implies that Tolson was involved with the Communist Party. While this author could find nothing written to indicate this was the case, both the CP and Socialist Party were involved at the time in efforts to organize the STFU, and Tolson certainly would have been familiar with the perspective and political arguments advanced in their publications. One of the film’s major weaknesses is that Wiley’s debate teams always argues for what could be called the correct, or progressive, side of the issue in dispute: integration of the school system, the right of poor people to social reform, the right of masses to conduct civil disobedience against racial injustice. While debates during the 1930s were organized differently from the way they are today—where coaches agree in advance to a particular subject, and then flip a coin to see which team begins with the affirmative side—in real life, the Wiley team did not always argue for progressive positions. The film would have been strengthened and its dramatic tension increased had the team been portrayed, even once, in defense of a reactionary position.

It was Tolson’s belief that the conditions of racism and inequality would be overcome through education, the power of ideas and social organization. The same convictions that drove his work with the Forensic Society of Wiley College were behind his efforts to unite black and white tenant farmers. Unfortunately, this side of the story is presented in a rather one-sided way in the film. The more prominent white actors are cast in the roles of the racist farmers, a reactionary sheriff and arrogant white student debaters. There was certainly no shortage of such reactionary layers in the Deep South during this period. And while it is true the film script had to summarize events stretching over a long period of time, the way these characters are cast is to the detriment of both historical accuracy and dramatic depth.

As an example, the film portrays the audience attending the 1930 debate at the University of Oklahoma as racially polarized: the black audience applauds the Wiley debaters and the white audience applauds their home team. Contemporaneous newspaper reports, however, give a far different account. At the actual event, the audience was caught up in the strength of arguments and intellectual integrity of the participants on both sides, regardless of racial characteristics and collegiate affiliation. Tolson’s comments about the event, recorded in an article published immediately afterwards, specifically memorialize this astonishing social reality. “When the finest intellects of black youth and white youth meet,” he said, “the thinking person gets the thrill of seeing beyond the racial phenomena the identity of worthy qualities.” He went on to elaborate his vision of a moment in the future when the most eloquent and intelligent representatives of both races join forces in a united struggle against racial oppression.

“For that all-too-brief hour,” he declared, “the mixed audience seemed to forget their difference, applauding one team as readily as it applauded another. In the South, I have seen the children of ex-slaves shaking hands with the grandsons of the masters after the debate.” The film would have been far more interesting had more of an effort been made by Denzel Washington and producer Oprah Winfrey to find a way to present the contradictory nature of relations. Instead—and certainly driven by the considerations of Hollywood—the film sets out to present Tolson as a brilliant middle class intellectual, generally separated from the social conditions that shaped his activities.

Leadership in The Great Debaters

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.

Movie "The Great Debaters"

This was my second time watching the movie called "The Great debaters," but it seemed like it was my first time since the emotional scenes and the profound aspect of the movie left me amazed and inspired once more. All the characters in the movie had their own moment to shine which makes the movie even greater and while watching, you always wonder what is coming next.

The character I identify with the most is Melvin Tolson, the teacher who assembled his debate team members tactfully and thoroughly. It is certainly not because the character is played by a tremendous actor, the two-time academy award winner, Denzel Washington; it is because Tolson, the character played by Washington, not only recruited these talented young speakers, but he found ways to inspire and energized them to greatness, even to what appears to be impossible to achieve. I believe that is what teaching should be about. Furthermore, the focus of this character on education as an important tool for freedom cannot let you without thinking that school has to be more than passing classes or grading, but a powerful weapon in the hands of whoever possesses it.

The second character that attracted my admiration as a speaker in the movie is Samantha Booke. As blacks were being mistreated and persecuted just for being black, this reality was even worse for black women in Texas. But this fact did not stop Samantha to believe in herself and her ability to be part this debate team. She will be the first woman to be in the Wiley college debate team and when given the chance to debate, she is not shy, but demonstrated a lot of emotions in her speeches, bravery, confidence, and passion.

As I said in my first paragraph, I believe every character in the movie has their moment to show their talents as a speaker. Henry Lowe, played by Nate Parker, performed gracefully in his first debate against. He is very persuasive in his speech, confident, well-prepared, and knowledgeable. He also has a great voice tone. He shows a great deal of energy in his speeches, and that energy and confidence are what I think I would like to possess as a speaker.

The only character I think at first showed some lacks is James Farmer, Jr. although he is the one who will help them win at the end, but at the beginning of his presentations he showed a lack of bravery and confidence. He is very talented and knowledgeable as a speaker, except that, at first, his lack of experience in public speaking will cause the team to lose. I understand that being brave has nothing to do with being capable or talented, but it is the courage to do what you have to do despite the fear and the lack of talents. I believe I possess this quality as a speaker which allows me to overcome my fear of public speaking every time I stand up to speak.

The movie is very inspiring and emotionally moving, besides all of these, what stroked me the most about the debate team is their willingness to research and to prepare themselves before their performance. I believe nothing can replace preparation. I have experienced the lack of it in some of my own presentations and paid the price for it. In the movie, I think they had James Farmer Jr. do all the research for them which is a very important part of a speaker's presentation. A speaker needs to have his fact straight, and the Wiley college debate team knew that and did just that.

"The Great debaters" movie is so educational that watching it made me feel like I have been in a classroom session. Although I actually was! The movie inspired me to do my best to be a better speaker, to take time to research my topics and prepare myself before my presentation. The movie taught me the importance of words and that you can win over darkness or anything with the power of your words. I particularly liked the scene where James Famer, Sr. convinced Sheriff Dozier to release Tolson. He actually said those words: "an unjust law is no law at all." This scene convinced me that I have to learn to make proper use of my words because certain battle can only be won by words.

Updated: Sep 29, 2022
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The Great Debaters: Historical Film Review. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

The Great Debaters: Historical Film Review essay
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