Great Debaters, The

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Entertainment: +3

Content: +1/2

By Bill Fentum
Staff Writer for The United Methodist Reporter

In the mid-1930s, Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, had already come a long way on faith. The historically black school, founded by Northern Methodists after the Civil War, was graduating hundreds of students. The Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools had recently ranked it an A class institution. But outside Wileys halls, the country was still struggling through the Great Depression. And in the South, Jim Crow laws kept black Americans locked in a world of forced segregation and racial bigotry.

James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) says a prayer for that world in the opening scene of The Great Debaters. He greets Wileys 1935-36 freshman class and assures them that education is the only way out of our present darkness, into the glorious light. Farmer, a Methodist Episcopal deacon and theology professor, worries especially about one of those students, his own son James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Viewers may know James Jr. is destined to be a leader in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. But here, hes just a 14-year-old prodigy, auditioning for a place on the Wiley debate team that is led by English teacher Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington).

Tolson, a modernist poet, insists on writing the teams arguments himself, but he also wants passionate speakers who wont buckle down in heated competition. James wins a spot, and is joined by classmates Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). They first go up against teams from other black institutionsFisk University in Nashville, Howard University in Washington, Paul Quinn College in Dallasand win every time. Next up, interracial debates with several Ivy League schools. And there, too, they remain undefeated. Then comes a fateful cross-state trip, and the end of easy self-confidence.

Driving late at night, they encounter a rural lynch mob that has just finished hanging and burning a black man to death. For James Jr. especially, the experience is paralyzing. He falls silent during the next days debate. The team loses, and he cant wait to get home. We know, of course, that hell overcome his fears. Later in life, Farmer credited his time at Wiley with inspiring him to fight the evils of racism and segregation. Tolson, he often said, awakened my soul. For a while, though, hes torn between allegiance to Tolson and his father, both natural leaders whose tactics differ greatly. Tolson, in his off-hours, works as an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, sparking trouble with the local sheriff (John Heard). James Sr., however, believes in striving quietly for justice through his ministry, and hes afraid his son may go astray under Tolsons influence. Their conflict comes to a head in a lively scenean informal debate, lets say, between Mr. Washington and Mr. Whitaker. Its all resolved when circumstances call for one man to stand up for the other, and James Jr. sees that both are heroes.

Robert Eiseles screenplay is based on research, but its also fictionalizedmost characters except for Tolson and the Farmer family are composites of several people. Events are altered too, with the team facing Harvard in a national championship instead of their real-life opponent, the University of Southern California.

OK, so The Great Debaters isnt a documentary. But it is dynamic, with vivid performances not only from the two veteran stars but also the young unknowns. And as a director, Mr. Washington proves that his fine debut with Antwone Fisher (2002) was no fluke. Hes a good storyteller, never relying on showy camerawork when simple dramatic tension will do the job.

A word to parents: The MPAA hadnt rated the movie at press time, but besides the lynching, it also includes a brief, inexplicit scene of sex, some strong language and a suggestion of underage drinking. If children 13 and over want to go, dont keep them away, but be sure to go with them.

Discussion Questions

1. Like James Jr., did you ever receive conflicting messages from mentors when you were growing up? What did you do?
2. Before the advent of television, public debates drew large audiences across the country. What was lost when the art of debating declined in popularity?

Bill Fentum is a staff writer for The United Methodist Reporter. This review was published in the December 21 issue of the Reporter, and is posted on Preview with permission from UMR Communications, 1221 Profit Drive, Dallas, Texas 75247. 1-800-947-0207.

Preview Reviewer: Bill Fentum
Harpo Films

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Running Time: 123 minutes
Intended Audience: Older Teens and Adults

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