The Great Debaters
In 1935, real-life educator Melvin B. Tolson created quite a name for himself by assembling an award-winning debate team at Wiley College, one of the oldest Black colleges in the nation. When he wasn't leading and motivating students, Tolson also created a bit of a stir with his radical politics. The Great Debaters chronicles this chapter in the life of a fascinating man—and in the life of a racially divided nation.
In the opening scenes, we see stern theologian James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) welcoming the freshman class of 1935 to Wiley, a small Methodist college located in Marshall, Texas—the heart of the segregated South. Later this first day of class, Tolson (Denzel Washington) introduces his students to the words of emerging revolutionary Black writers—and announces the debate team tryouts at his house that night.
The tryouts draw 45 students, vying for four positions. Intelligent-but-brooding Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) makes the team, along with returning member Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). The team is rounded out by alternates Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only female to try out, and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the 14-year-old son of the college president.
Tolson employs unrelenting and unconventional methods to train his team, which pay off in victory after victory in debates with other Black colleges throughout the country. Unbeknownst to his students, Tolson writes to several white universities to try to secure an unprecedented debate with one of them; his ultimate dream is a long-shot debate with Harvard.
Also unbeknownst to his students and even to his family, Tolson spends his evenings trying to help unionize the local sharecroppers and farmers, a mixed-race partnership that has local and state police on edge—and occasionally on the offense. When college officials and students' parents catch wind of Tolson's political activities, there are consequences for him and his students.
The Great Debaters is Denzel Washington's sophomore directorial project, and it features similar themes to his first film, 2002's Antwone Fisher. The most notable similarity is a young, troubled African-American protagonist on the brink of adulthood being mentored by an older father figure. There's also a strong emphasis on the power of education and the need to step up to adult responsibilities. Thankfully, none of these themes seem heavy handed.
Unfortunately, needed background is missing for many of the main characters. How did Tolson, a college professor, get involved in local union activity—and why? We know Henry's parents are gone and that he was raised by his grandparents, but we don't know how he's able to quote so many academics, theologians, and poets. And why does he escape into boozing and womanizing whenever things get tough? Where did Samantha get the courage to want to be one of the nation's first female Black lawyers? And why is 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr. in college? Sure, his dad is the president—but why isn't he studying at his grade level? None of these key questions gets answered in the film.