4 Stars – Inspiring
There are few films which match the level of art and excellence achieved by the creators of “The Great Debaters.” It is a visual masterpiece as the camera presents dream-like images at times and stark realism at others. The dialogue not only moves the story but also inspires the audience. The acting is exquisite and the directing superb. But what makes this film a true work of art is its moral and spiritual content. Based on a true story of a young professor of an all-black college in Marshall, Texas in 1935, we are able to experience history as first-hand observers in a little-known event that was foundational to the civil rights movement.
Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a professor and debate team coach of this Methodist school named Wiley College. An administrator and theologian at the college is a man of deep faith and scholarship, Dr. James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) and the first African-American with a PhD in the state of Texas. His son, James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is a brilliant young man who has entered the college at the age of 14. Having been raised with both scholarship and faith, James Jr. is formed by home and school to become the cofounder and first national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, a non-violent civil rights movement formed in 1942 when Farmer was only 21 years of age.
Tolson, who was also the son of a Methodist minister, played a primary role in the formation of Farmer and the other members of the Wiley Forensic Society debate team, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). Lowe later became a minister and Booke became a lawyer, while both became primary participants in the cause of freedom for African Americans.
The history represented in the film is a masterful combination of the horror of life in the segregated south as the debate team happens upon a back-road lynching, as well as the hope of these young people who effectively debate the necessity for equality and non-violent resistance of the unjust laws that had held African-Americans captive. Though some of the facts have been changed for artistic reasons, such as Farmer’s father was an administrator but never president of Wiley College and the team never debated Harvard but instead won the national championship by defeating the University of Southern California, the message remains the same: Faith and Reason can provide the foundation for transforming lives and nations. That is a lesson worthy of hearing again and again.
- In real life, Tolson did earn his masters degree at Columbia University and taught at both Wiley College in Texas and Langston University in Oklahoma. Writing a weekly column, “Cabbage and Caviar,” he helped create the milieu which brought about desegregation and the civil rights movement. What writers today do you see laying the foundation for future social change?
- The joining of faith and reason in the lives of Farmer and Lowe such that both became theologians and political activists is a common aspect of African-American Christianity. What is it about Jesus and His teachings that produces this combination? In the film, why did Tolson say he was following the example of Jesus?
- The contrast between James Farmer Sr.’s response to the pig farmer and his response to the sheriff shows his skill and understanding of being the most educated black man in the state of Texas. What do you believe gave him the wisdom, humility and courage to live his life as he did?