“The Great Debaters,” is a heavily fictionalized but true story of Professor Melvin Tolson, who in 1935-36 coached the debate team from an all-black college in Marshall Texas to a nearly undefeated season that sees the first debate between U.S. students from white and Negro colleges. Their impressive run leads to an invitation to face Harvard University’s national champions.
The movie apparently received a lot of criticism when it came out. There were a lot of big names attached – Denzel Washington directed the movie while Oprah Winfrey was one of the producers. There are apparently many changes (for example the national champions who invited the debate team at Wiley College, was USC and not Harvard).
But I think those critics miss the point – not least that this is a heavily fictionalized account and was never suggested as anything else. The movie has great acting performances, scenes that have you sweating with fear for the characters, or close to tears of joy or sadness.
If that doesn’t cut it for you, this movie highlights both the gross historical racism that this country was founded upon, and the transformative potential of education. It pitches David .v. Goliath, freedom .v. privilege, and inspires the notion of teamwork and perseverance.
For me, beyond the erudite display of the power and artistry of words, the character of the Wiley College team coach stands out. Melvin B. Tolson, the noted poet, social activist and educator, is not necessarily loveable. He is self-righteous, autocratic and fearless, Mr. Washington’s Tolson reminded me of the stern East London schoolteacher played by Sidney Poitier 40 years ago in “To Sir, With Love.” I almost pursued a career as a teacher after watching this movie.
There is a powerful scene where Tolson, driving home from a debate with his students, comes upon a lynching. The imagery of this hideous atrocity sear your mind, and you are sweating when the mob, still riled with blood lust, chase the car. Afterward, Henry’s shame and stifled fury drive him to a self-destructive spree. This is a powerful scene in its own right, and an aspect that Hollywood often ignores.
“The Great Debaters” still sends an important message. In these turbulent times, as our economy makes a seismic shift and people stand shakily on the edge of the chasm or even fall over the edge, we need more than ever and the transformative power of education and words.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com