Welcome back to another segment of Movie Night Friday on The PBS Blog, where I list some of my favorite movies and why I love them.
This week, I’d like to discuss The Great Debaters.
I love this movie and I can give extensive reasons why but if I am honest, the real reason is poetry. I like The Great Debaters movie because their debates sound like spoken word poetry. Even before I knew Melvin Tolson was a poet, I found the language, even basic dialogue, so very poetic and the debates as Open Mic Nights.
Aside from this, there was also the concept of race in America and parenthood. Yes, parenthood. James Farmer Sr. was so engulfed in his work that he did not often give much attention to his son. For example, James Jr. was letting his father know, subtly, that he liked Samantha Booke, another fellow debater and classmate. He mentioned her as one of the alternatives among the group and, recognizing this, his father reminded him that “you must not take your eyes off the ball son.” While this was all good (as I loved the “we do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do” line) Farmer Sr. didn’t realize at that moment the opportunity to speak with his son about girls. It was this knowledge that upset his mom who didn’t say anything but whose anger could be seen in her sudden fast pace in peeling the potatoes. She recognized her husband’s failure to take this opportunity to have an intimate conversation with his son. This is the kind of writing that I love; the kind that could reveal an emotion or a feeling even without it being verbalized.
The Great Debaters is a movie based on real events about the poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) who teaches at the predominately black Wiley College in Marshall Texas, in 1935. Tolson starts a debate team and as the tryouts begin and end, Tolson picks four students, three of which become the central focus of the movie. As the students prepare to challenge various schools, we see also how they deal with the challenges that face them in the Jim Crow south.
While at first Tolson butts head with the influential father (Forest Whitaker) of one of his best debaters, eventually Tolson is able to form a team of strong-minded, intelligent young students, and they become the first black debate team to challenge Harvard’s prestigious debate champions.
“Who’s the judge?”
“The judge is God.”
“Why is he God?”
“Because he decides who wins or loses, not my opponent.”
One of my favorite lines is this one. While I believe in calling the father by his name, Yah, I understand what this scene means and I like it because it’s strengthening even for those of us who are watching the movie. No matter who you think you are against, the judge is always Yah, not your opponent. In the end, we will be asked about our own sins and not the sins of others.
Tolson’s political views, add more to the story. He is a man who sneaks out at night to a country barn wearing overalls and works boots. And as rumors of radical communism sparks, it causes him to lose one of his students. Tolson is not to be undone, however, and keeps his politics out of the classroom. While the movie highlights his knowledge of poetry as he teaches English, it does not mention that he is a leading poet. Tolson in fact, published long poems in such magazines as the Atlantic Monthly and in 1947 was named poet laureate of Liberia.
As stated, this movie is based on the real-life events of the student debate team of Wiley College. Under the leadership of Tolson, Wiley College’s debate team became legendary. It won almost every debate among historically-black colleges and became the first to debate a white college when it took on and defeated Oklahoma City College in 1932. The team’s crowning achievement, however, came in 1935 when it defeated that year’s national champions, the University of Southern California. And naturally, after the movie was made in 2007, Wiley College rose to popularity again with increased enrollment and the re-establishing of its debate team.
My Favorite Line:
“I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind because obviously you have lost it.”
Funny Movie Mistakes:
It was hard to find any real mistakes in this movie. Most people say it is the Willie Lynch Speech, that there was no such letter and Tolson’s reciting of this piece of History is flawed. However, I do not believe that. I believe The Willie Lynch Letter did exist because I don’t believe in coincidences. Everything written in that letter to other slave owners on how to control their slaves can be seen in the behavior of many in the black community today. From the separation of the races by color (pitch the dark skin slave against the light skin slave), to the Making of a Slave and the Breaking process of the Black woman.
What’s your favorite movie? Why do you love it?”