“The Great Debaters”
Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by Robert Eisele
Of all the year-end, Academy-Award-contesting movies, “The Great Debaters” wins the prize. It’s one of those rare movies where audiences stay to applaud during the credits. The credits include the IATSE union bug.
Our American treasure, Denzel Washington, as star and director, may get most of the credit, but the story woven together from historical events by Robert Eisele should take a large share.
During the Great Depression, an amazing sequence of events took place at tiny Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The college and town remain today so far in deep East Texas that they are almost in Louisiana. Students of civil rights history will recognize the town as one of those singled out by the early NAACP as the worst lynch towns in America. NAACP publicized the fact that the KKK didn’t just hang African Americans, but actually preferred burning them alive. On a map of East Texas, one can find that Jasper, where an African American man was dragged to death just a few years ago, is only a short drive from Marshall.
Students of labor history will also confirm the film’s depiction of early efforts to organize Southern tenant farmers, including the reference to the “Elaine Massacre.”
It is also worth noting, though not in the film, that the U.S. Congressman from East Texas during the depression was the notorious red-baiter, Martin Dies of “Dies Committee” fame. A more recent, but just as shameful, East Texas Congressman “Champagne Charley” Wilson is currently being romanticized in a different movie. Moviegoers may choose which version of East Texas is the more relevant.
At the center of the events at the historically black Wiley College was Professor Melvin B. Tolson, who actually led the depression-era college debating team to astonishing heights. Tolson is a historical giant from the period and from the area. After Wiley, he went on to international recognition as a poet in the tradition of Langston Hughes. To have an actor with the power of Denzel Washington portraying such a champion of civil rights under the most difficult of circumstances is a breathtaking opportunity for moviegoers.
At Wiley, the real Tolson mentored both James Farmer Jr, who started the Congress on Racial Equality and is depicted in the film, and Heman Sweatt, who won Texas’ most famous civil rights lawsuit to integrate the University of Texas.
“The Great Debaters” goes much further than its gut-wrenching depiction of racism in East Texas. Through example, dialog, and the speeches of the debate team, it also reviews options for struggle at both the individual and the national level. The issues portrayed as important in 1935 are the same issues we have yet to overcome today, including the debilitating effect of red-baiting within the progressive movement.
V.I. Lenin and others have pointed out the importance of cinema on the public consciousness. A film that rings as true and powerful as “The Great Debaters” may have an effect on 2008 election primaries. One of the producers, TV’s preeminent talk show host Oprah Winfrey, is currently promoting the movie and also campaigning openly for her presidential choice. The film, which opened on Christmas Day, is sure to run through most of the primaries and will undoubtedly attract several Academy Award nominations.
Will it have a noticeable effect on voters? Whether we see “The Great Debaters” as a force in elections, a wonderful historical tribute to anti-racist survivors, a profound art experience, or just a rousing good two hours in a dark theater, it’s still outstanding. No debate necessary!
Jim Lane writes from Dallas, Texas.