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Movie Review

'The Great Debaters'

Review by Kati Ketz |
January 16, 2008
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The movie The Great Debaters is based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a poet and professor from the 1930s. In the movie, Tolson’s character is that of an energetic professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas who organizes the school debate team. That debate team goes on to debate white colleges, to a mostly undefeated season where they won a 1935 debate against Harvard, the reigning national champion.

The setting of the movie - 1935 in Marshall, Texas - catches what it was like for African-Americans in the South at that time. During one scene in the movie, the students with Professor Tolson drive straight by the lynching of a Black man. As they were staring up at the burning body, the white mob turns their attention towards the students in the car. The students quickly realize he was lynched for the crime of being a Black man in Texas.

The debates throughout the movie provide commentary on such topics as child labor, the integration of the university and the use of civil non-violent disobedience. In the last debate against Harvard about civil disobedience, the audience can see the beginnings of the young James Farmer Jr., who in the movie argued for civil disobedience. The real James Farmer Jr. was a key civil rights leader in the 1960s who founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helped lead the Freedom Rides in the South, where they tested supposedly desegregated buses and were met with violence from the state.

The movie depicted Tolson as a communist who, along with other Black and white activists, was trying to organize sharecroppers into a union. The sheriff’s office tried desperately to break apart the workers, using brute force and raiding meetings so that the workers would not unionize. The government, along with the bosses, was completely against any form of union that would help the sharecroppers receive better wages and better working conditions. The sheriff was also worried that the communists were coming down to “stir up trouble between our whites and our coloreds,” and he wanted the status quo of segregation and inequality to stay exactly the way it was.

This movie is a must-see for all who are interested in the Jim Crow South and progressive politics. The speeches given in the debates are very powerful and really showcase what the debates around segregation and capitalism were at the time. The Great Debaters does a fantastic job of personalizing the beginnings of future civil rights leaders, and is a powerful testament against segregation. Although Jim Crow was formally ended in the South, racism and national oppression are still very much real. Nooses are being hung from trees in order to intimidate workers and students, women are being raped and tortured based on their nationality, and the victims of the Katrina hurricane are still left with no justice. Black people in the South need political power, liberation and the right to self-determination in order to achieve real and lasting equality.

Running Time: 123 Minutes
Director: Denzel Washington
Written by: Robert Eisele
2007 Rated: PG-13