Maybe I should convert this blog into a film review blog...because what follows is a film review sort of. I have just finished watching 'The Great Debaters' which is kind of a historical fiction as it is based on a true story. But as with any good story some of the facts change and the debate team debates Harvard instead of the University of Southern California like they did for real.
The story is an inspiring one and well worth the time spent to watch it. I wanted to watch it because I love to debate and I love to talk and this movie promised those things with a background of race relations, the power of words, and the desire to succeed despite the odds and despite the forces lining up against you.
The story follows a small African American college located in Marshall, Texas, Wiley College, through their participation in debate competitions culminating in the national debate finals against Harvard University. The film has some big stars in it, which you would expect from an Oprah Winfrey funded film. Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker are the established stars but it also includes some up and coming stars of the future such as Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollet, and Nate Parker...
The main characters are Professor Melvin Tolson, James L. Farmer Sr and Jr, Henry Lowe, and Samantha Brooke. Professor Tolson was a man before his time, at least in the movie, as he was advocating ideas and action in the deep south of America in the 1930s that become building blocks of the civil rights movement three decades later. It is not surprising that James L. Farmer Jr went onto to be one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement after the sort of grounding given to him by his father and Tolson. James L. Farmer Sr was a determined soul in his own right walking from Florida to Massachusetts to continue his education. And I am having trouble finding the time to fill in a computer based electronic application!
The film forces the watcher to confront race relations head on but it touches on so many more issues of the time that still have currency now such as the difficulties faced by farmers and unorganized labor, and the topics of the debates themselves are intriguing insights into the minds of the writers and producers of the script--quality education and civil disobedience as a means of forcing change, among others.
Even though the film is based on a true story it is interesting that the story itself was not considered to be good enough to stand on its own as it occurred at the time. In this age of political correctness there seems to always be a need to make sure that all segments of the community are covered in the demographic of the film. The 1935 Debate Team at Wiley College included no women, aside from the Tolson and Farmer Jr characters the others on the team are composites of many Wiley College debaters. The previous note that the team did compete against all white colleges and universities but not Harvard and the Wiley College team did win championships. So, the question that lingers will always be why was it considered that the real history of the Wiley College Debate Team of 1935 was not good enough to stand on its own merits? It still would of made for a hell of a drama!
That criticism aside it is an inspiring movie and is worth the time to watch it!