The Great Debaters
In a Texas town so small that the one bench near the bus depot is reserved for whites only, an all-black college exists under the watchful scrutiny of the local authorities. In 1935, the very idea of black college graduates was a reproach to the endemic racism of the surrounding society. Wiley College is a slender tree of learning cultivated by distant Northern philanthropists. It’s the real life setting for The Great Debaters, a film loosely drawn from true events.
An admirable spirit of social uplift animates The Great Debaters. In his second movie as a director, Denzel Washington also stars as Wiley’s debate coach, Melvin Tolson, a striver for raising the educational level of his people. He is an electrifying teacher, inspiring and a little frightening in his intensity, at once funny and angry, ready to pick apart any lapse in logic that passes within his hearing. He has the radical idea that Wiley’s debate team should compete against and defeat its counterparts from white colleges, even from Harvard.
The actual debate in which Wiley defeated its white opponents took place against USC, not the loftier Harvard, and probably didn’t include the excruciating moments of melodrama injected like emotional steroids into a story that needs no artificial stimulants to be gripping. Occasionally the tone of The Great Debaters is as anachronistic as the 1960s globe on Tolson’s desk. Did the professor have the foresight to purchase a globe from 30 years in the future, showing the map of post-colonial Africa? Likewise, Washington imagines heavily armed Texas Rangers backing down before a small, non-violent crowd of protesters. What could have happened in 1965 was less plausible in 1935.
On the other hand, much of The Great Debaters is true to the time and place it depicts. Tolson is a firebrand who teaches Langston Hughes, scrawls “Revolution” on the chalkboard and slips away under the moonlight for the dangerous business of organizing black and white sharecroppers into a tenant farmers union. He represents one of the two poles African American leaders aspired to in those years, W.E.B. DuBois, who believed blacks must advance with heads held high along the path of intellectual excellence and social engagement. Tolson’s professorial colleague at Wiley, James Farmer (played with ponderous dignity by Forst Whitaker), stands for Booker T. Washington, who preached that blacks could only advance with caps in hand in slow, accommodating steps. Although Tolson is meant to be the hero, both positions are accorded respect and sympathy.
Farmer is at the center of the film’s most memorable and illuminating scene. While driving down a narrow country lane with his wife and children, Farmer accidentally kills a hog running across the road. White pig farmers emerge from their nearby hovel, displaying guns, demanding recompense and subjecting Farmer to petty humiliations to degrade him before himself and his family. The professor is forced to endorse his paycheck and hand it over to his tormentors. In much of the U.S. even the most respectable black professional lived within a precarious safety zone. The pig farmers, as their children watched and grinned, demonstrated to themselves that despite their poverty and low social standing, they could lord it over even the highest-ranking African American.
Unlike Tolson, Farmer is a patient man. But Farmer certainly would join with Tolson’s rousing call to his students, reminding them that the slave owners wanted to reduce blacks to beasts of burden robbed of their minds. Education is one way out of ignorance and Tolson didn’t mean four-year degrees in hotel management or business administration. He sought to furnish minds with knowledge sharpened by rhetorical skill. It remains an underachieved goal nowadays despite the proliferation of college programs. This is true not only for the underclass who can least afford to accept being marginalized and manipulated, but of mainstream America, fast becoming a society of button punchers and text messengers hard pressed to form a mental picture of the world around us.