THE GREAT DEBATERS
More than Overcomers
Release Date: December 25, 2007
Genre: Historical Drama
Audience: Older teenagers and adults
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: Robert Eisele
Address Comments To:Harry E. Sloan, Chairman/CEO
Clark Woods, President of Domestic Theatrical Distribution
MGM Studios Inc.
(Partially owned by Sony Corporation of America)
10250 Constellation Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 900067
Phone: (310) 449-3000
Fax: (310) 449-8819
The movie opens in 1935 quickly cutting back and forth between an on fire African American church with the pastor preaching the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ and a desolate, rundown juke joint in the swamp packed with writhing bodies and deep south jazz music. One of the dancers, Henry Lowe, is about to score with a woman he is getting drunk, when her husband, a giant of a black man, comes up and tells him he’s going to cut his head off. Small, light Henry defends himself well until the fight is broken up by a stranger who turns out to be Prof. Melvin B. Tolson.
The next day, Wiley College is opening its semester with Christian exhortation of the student body and faculty. Tolson comes into his class, climbs up on his desk and delivers a passionate poem. He chooses four students, including Henry, to be his debate team. The other student is a 14-year-old prodigy, James Farmer, Jr., who is the son of the preacher featured at the beginning of the movie, who later founded the Council on Racial Equality. The third debater is Hamilton Burgess, a deeply committed Christian. Rounding out the team is Samantha Booke, the first female on the debate team.
Tolson shapes the four students into a debating powerhouse that defeats one team after another, until they are invited to challenge the top debate team in the country, Harvard. In real life, Wiley College defeated the top team in the country, but it was not Harvard.
Behind this story of the come-from-behind debate team is the story of overcoming racism. Tolson in his spare time organizes the farm workers. The sheriff and his armed friends break up their meeting, burn down their barn and inflict serious injury to the older farmers. Later, the debate team finds itself on a lonely road surrounded by a lynch mob with a charred black corpse hanging from a tree.
At one point, Hamilton confronts Tolson about his Communist political views since his father will not let him debate unless Tolson renounces his Communism. Tolson does not. Henry Lowe, a womanizer, winds up sleeping with Samantha, which almost destroys the team when he breaks her heart. Thus, the team has face overwhelming odds, including the loss of one member, the fear of the lynching and the romantic battle, to reach the big debate with the top debate team in the nation. What is worse is that Tolson is arrested and cannot travel with the team from Texas to Harvard.
THE GREAT DEBATERS follows a similar story arc to REMEMBER THE TITANS, GLORY ROAD and PRIDE, but is so finely tuned and well-constructed that it elicits compassion and even tears. Denzel Washington, who also plays Prof. Tolson, does such a good job of directing this movie that every actor, including himself, loses their identity in the characters. People cheered at several points in the picture and clapped at the end.
James Farmer Sr.’s preaching of the Gospel is very clear. He is well-versed in seven languages, he carries the Bible everywhere, and he speaks biblical truth. The jazz music of the juke joint is contagious and the emotional heat of the dancing will be felt in the theater.
That said, the movie is not without its problems for people of faith and values. The violence is intense, and the lynching is shocking. The drinking and the sex may have been part of the life of the African American community at that time, but could have been toned down.
On reflection, what really is troublesome about the movie is that the great debate at the end offered an opportunity for a strong witness that God’s law is more powerful than man’s law. In that context, God’s command to love your neighbor would have given depth to the racial issues. Instead, the final debate misrepresents Gandhi and turns what could be a powerful universal argument into a political diatribe. The final debate point does cite St. Augustine, but by that time, the script has turned its spiritual arguments into political ones. This problem is also true of the Civil Rights Movement. There were strong Christians and strong Marxists involved in the movement. Often and unwittingly, they were cobelligerents. The Christian was called by God’s law to love his neighbor as himself, and the Marxist was motivated by the politics of power and envy. In this battle, although Tolson the Communist is supposed to be the hero in the movie, from the point of view of several members of the audience, the Christian preacher, James Farmer, Sr. came off as the real hero.
Whatever its politics or spiritual message is, THE GREAT DEBATERS is one of the best movies of 2007.
The filmmakers turn the original story of the Wiley College debate team into a powerful drama that elicits cheers and tears. The movie is not without its problems for Christians. The violence is intense, especially a lynching scene. There is also some heavy drinking and sexual immorality. On reflection, what really is most troublesome about the movie is that the ending takes biblical truths and turns them into a political diatribe. Whatever its message is, THE GREAT DEBATERS is one of the best-crafted movies of 2007.