The Great Debaters
Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by Robert Eisele
2007, 123 min., Rated PG-13

Denzel Washington, Forrest Whitaker, Junree Smollett, Nate Parker, Gina Vera, Denzel Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, John Heard and indeed the entire cast of white and Black actors did a fantastic job of delivery and performance in this movie.

The movie is based on a true story about a Black college debate team in Marshall, Texas who rose to national prominence to defeat the national champions of 1935 at Harvard, University (The New York Times Reviewer Stephen Holden says it was the University of Southern California). The New York Times and St. Louis Post Dispatch reviews give reluctant praise and hold the movie to standards of historical accuracy that are a little far fetched for a movie that makes the modest claim “based on a true story.”

The story comes out of the era of the “Great Depression” when there was great social upheaval among working people, farmers and the racially oppressed. It was a time when the working class was historically obligated to make great, new strides in unionization of workers; it was a time when the Communist Party boldly seized the helm of the organizing drive in the South to organize the sharecroppers union and at the risk of life and limb stood for racial equality.

The great social debates of this era of radical reforms are honestly reflected in this movie. The questions of child labor, integration, the right to organize unions, social welfare and relief for the poor, and the revolutionary duty to challenge unjust laws are all touched upon by these debaters.

What is the purpose of education and how does it relate to the survival of a people? Professor/Poet/Agitator-Organizer/Educator and family man Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) uses the classroom as a boot camp to prepare promising young to be conscious participants in the great class battles and social struggles of the day and he defends his right to be a Communist.

Racism’s validity is vigorously debated but capitalism as the main perpetrator of social and economic injustice is not let off the hook. There is a powerful message here just in contrasting this with what goes on in classrooms today.

There are also less subtle but still powerful messages in the way Rev. James Farmer, Sr. (played by Forest Whitaker) raises his son to be committed to the strivings of his people as well as himself. When the struggles of the angry sharecroppers hit the streets of this little town Rev. Farmer stands tall as a man of the people.

In my view there is nothing mixed about the message in this movie. It is about a time in our history when African Americans were regarded as less than human and victimized by lynching pogroms in the backwoods of Texas and throughout the land. For anyone, and especially anyone Black, to stand up and not only debate the validity of existing “jim crow” policies but the revolutionary right to overturn racist segregation was an act of indomitable courage.

This movie is about the fact that African Americans and their progressive allies had that courage to make a difference then and it inspires us to make the difference now. A great movie with a well deserved four stars. Go see it you’ll be glad you did.

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