You don’t have to know much about propositions, resolutions and fallacies to appreciate “The Great Debaters,” which opens Christmas Day.Denzel Washington, who also directed the picture, stars as Mel Tolson, a professor at the African-American Wiley College in small-town Marshall, Texas, who battles Jim Crow to lead the school’s debate team to national prominence.
Inspired by a true story and already nominated as Best Picture for a Golden Globe, “The Great Debaters” is produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. The film is a winning, if a bit long, portrait of the value of education.
Not only does it offer the sure-fire performance of Washington, but it also features Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker as James Farmer Sr., the noted African-American scholar and Wiley College administrator.
“Believe in the power of words,” Tolson tells his four-person team: Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker; no relation to either actor).
By day, Tolson hammers his students in the finer points of thinking, researching, arguing. By night, he works as an activist to organize sharecroppers, giving the movie a relevant subplot and tying thought to action.
Town rumors say Tolson is a communist. “My politics are my business,” he responds. But his business and his politics attract the attention of law enforcement, which flushes out both literal and figurative weapons.
The script offers laughs, poignancy, inspiration ”what you would expect from a student-teacher story grafted onto the sports movie genre. Combining mainstream movies and U.S. race history is familiar territory for Washington (“Glory,” “Malcolm X,” “Remember the Titans”), who oversees Robert Eisele’s good script (except for a clumsily written scene in which Henry and James Jr. try to make sense of the senselessness of a lynching they saw).
Because the movie says it’s “inspired” by a true story, the script deviates from fact. For example, the University of Southern California, not Harvard, was the reigning national debate champion in 1935. Some of the characters are composites, too, but Mel Tolson was a real figure who did much that he is shown to have done. Audiences will also be familiar with James Farmer Jr. (who really did start attending Wiley at 14). Farmer went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which played a key role in the civil rights movement.
“The Great Debaters” is less about debating ”though those scenes effectively pull us into that world ”and more about the point of debate: arriving at truth. The movie shows us truth suppressed by unequal systems, by firearms, by humiliation.
So, Tolson admonishes his team, “Keep your righteous mind.” Battle those forces that would take it from you. And while he’s said their weapons are their words, his life discloses a secondary weapon of action.
Whether that action be violent or nonviolent eventually rises as a discussion point ”in Wiley’s debate with national champions Harvard.
Resolved: “Civil disobedience is a moral weapon in the fight for justice.”
By the time Wiley debates that with Harvard, “The Great Debaters” has you emotionally invested in moral weapons, in freedom, justice and equality. You care about Gandhi, Thoreau and the Gospel of Matthew.
You want to keep your righteous mind.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality. Reviewer’s Note: There’s a fairly graphic image of a lynched man.
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: Robert Eisele
Cast: Mel Tolson: Denzel Washington; James Farmer Sr.: Forest Whitaker; James Farmer Jr.: Denzel Whitaker; Henry Lowe: Nate Parker; Samantha Booke: Jurnee Smollett; Hamilton Burgess: Jermaine Williams; Ruth Tolson: Gina Ravera; Sheriff Dozier: John Heard; Pearl Farmer: Kimberly Elise.