Making the case for racial justice

January 11, 2008

Jason Farbman reviews Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters.

ONE COULD be forgiven for assuming The Great Debaters is simply a formulaic, feel-good movie released for the holiday season. Buried in a marketing campaign full of clichés, it seems to be nothing more than a film, based on a true story, about an underdog debate team from a tiny all-black college who will defy the odds.

The team will learn something about themselves along the way--thanks to an inspiring teacher, played by Denzel Washington. Those who see the film, however, will be repeatedly surprised by powerful moments, and a radical political core.

With the plot surrounding the debate team in the foreground, issues of segregation, lynching and economic injustice give life to the characters' struggles. In it, a communist travels to the South to organize sharecroppers across racial lines, while the police and state stand clearly on the side of wealthy farm owners. At the same time, the authorities are nowhere to be found when Black Southerners are subjected to all manner of humiliations and physical danger.

Review: Movies

The Great Debaters, written by Robert Eisele, directed by Denzel Washington, starring Washington and Forest Whitaker.

Set in the Jim Crow South, the first scenes of the film make it clear that in the Texas of 1935, even educated Black people can only rise so far in society. The film depicts both a raucous juke joint in the woods, where poor sharecroppers go to dance and drink, and the sterile, serene classrooms of Wiley College.

These images seem completely unconnected, until a scene in which a young woman waits at the bus stop, standing next to a bench marked "Whites Only." This point is further driven home shortly after, when Wiley's dean, Dr. James Farmer Sr. (played by Forest Whitaker) is humiliated in front of his family by two white racist pig farmers.

Also connecting these worlds is poet Melvin Tolson (played by Washington, who also directed). Tolson is not only the debate teacher at Wiley but a communist, secretly organizing Black and white sharecroppers. When the nighttime organizing meetings are discovered and violently broken up by the police, Tolson's politics become a source of tension at the school.

But when Tolson is unfairly arrested for "stirring up trouble," many of the sharecroppers and students surround the prison in angry protest. The police release Tolson, but it is clear it would have taken nothing short of an angry mob to free him.

Throughout the film, scenes of injustice are interlaced with debate competitions, allowing the students to give voice to the arguments that are playing out in their lives. The same woman who was earlier shown standing next to the whites-only bench decries segregation, against a white team in Oklahoma, "my opponent says today is not the day for whites and coloreds to go to the same college...No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!"

The question of how patient people should be, in the face of injustice, is a recurring theme. Another important debate is how people should behave, when they are told to just be patient. In a discussion of civil disobedience, a privileged white student says that any break with the "rule of law" will inevitably lead to a slide into anarchy.

Fourteen-year-old James Farmer Jr, the dean's son, rebuts this notion before a packed audience. He describes what life is like for Black people under the "rule of law," with no relief from humiliation and lynchings, made second-class citizens by segregation. To a packed auditorium, he concludes, "it is not just a right, but a duty to resist the unjust law through violence or by civil disobedience...and you all better pray we choose the latter."

It is amazing that a movie asking these questions is playing in multiplexes across the country. But the packaging of this film, as a quasi-sports success story, has been a great disservice. This was actually a deliberate move, as Washington was forced to put a familiar spin on it, so it could be niche-marketed. He has freely discussed how difficult it was to get the movie financed.

Preferring to direct and not appear in the film, Washington was also forced to take a leading role. He described that compromise, "in order to make a decent-looking period piece we needed a budget of at least $25 million. The studio said, if you're not in it, we'll spend maybe $12 million. So the only way to get what the film needed was for me to act, too."

It is easy to imagine other factors also kept investors from rushing to support the movie--such as a communist lead and radical politics--and amazingly, Washington wasn't forced to make much deeper compromises. While the movie can be predictable at times, there are good reasons to see it.

Many will be introduced to Black heroes Tolson and Farmer Jr. (the civil rights leader who helped found the Congress of Racial Equality), whose legacies are not well known. More importantly, people will find themselves challenged by the questions posed in The Great Debaters, about the struggle that will be required for dignity and justice, when oppression is supported by law.

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