The Great Debaters is history by way of Oprah: righteously angry and uplifting, willing to pull a punch when it makes the broader point. Based on the true story of the 1935 Wiley College debate team, the film follows its rise from modest beginnings in Marshall, Texas to national prominence, with plenty of underdog team movie conventions: personal hardships, social oppressions, and resilient spirits.
The film—produced by Harpo Productions and directed by Denzel Washington—begins at a kind of bottom. Future team leader Henry Lewis (Nate Parker) is squandering his yet-to-be-revealed oratory gifts at a local juke joint, drinking hard liquor and dancing with a married woman. When her husband shows up to challenge him to a punch-out, Henry engages… until he’s stopped by Melvin B. Tolson (Washington), who just happens to be passing by the bar that evening, looking mighty country in his jeans and checkered shirt. Henry backs down, but later learns that Tolson is not in fact a farmer, but an English professor at Wiley, not to mention the debate team coach. His jeans that night signal yet another avocation, that of union organizer trying to rally local landowners (white and black) against unseen corporate bullies.
Tolson’s insistence on social consciousness and hardcore morality find an apt student in Henry, who will, of course, prove to be less a troublemaker than a troubled kid. Asked why he’s come back to college after time away, Henry’s answer sets him up as heartthrob, both tough and ambitious: “School’s the only place I can read all day,” aside from prison. Tolson’s impressed enough to invite him to join the debate team, alongside first girl debater Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and 15-year-old prodigy James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who in real life grew up to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942.
Bright and sweet, James brings some dramatic baggage, partly because he’s crushing on Sam (who prefers Henry, closer to her age and tres square-jawed), but more interestingly, because he faces a tension between intellectual and religious ambitions. Predictably, this tension is embodied by his Langston Hughes-quoting “radical” coach and his father, theology professor James Sr. (Forest Whitaker). This tension is made visible as Junior’s competing father figures respond to brutal racism in a series of confrontations, from a couple of backwoods hog farmers to an insidiously soft-spoken cracker sheriff (John Heard) to a full-on lynching party. This last provides something of a turning point for the team, who stumble on the scene by accident, while driving to a match in Texas. Tolson tries to hide Sam and Junior in the back of the car, but Henry makes a move to cut down the victim’s charred body even as the murderers remain on the scene and enthusiastically aggressive (“There’s niggers in that car!”). Henry’s instinct, however gallant, is also effectively suicidal, and provides yet another object lesson for young Junior, whose wide eyes provide for much of the film’s emotional perspective.
As such a device, Junior observes a series of contests, and never quite learns exactly whether Tolson is a communist or not. He’s especially struck by a face-off between his father and Tolson at a faculty party that has to be negotiated by Mrs. Tolson (Gina Ravera) and Mrs. Farmer (Kimberly Elise). Both men wield language as a means to make their cases, whether in classrooms or pulpits, and both inculcate respect for education in their young charges. As Sam puts it following a debate where she makes a winning argument against their first white opponents (“Resolved: Negroes should be admitted to state universities”), “My weapons were the words. I didn’t need a gun, I didn’t need a knife.”
While this is the film’s primary lesson—that education and performance of same are a means to overcoming prejudice—it does tend to overuse such tidy connections between the kids’ debate topics and the team’s progress. As Tolson tells them, he means to help them find and maintain their “righteous minds,” in the face of overwhelming odds. While he insists, “Debate is blood sport,” he also draws a bright line between intelligent resistance and actual brute force (the preferred mode of their local law enforcement in Texas, manifested when a black prisoner shows up beaten to a pulp after a night in jail).
When, after many appeals by Tolson, the team is at last invited to debate Harvard (in real life, it was USC), the film constructs some narrative fictions. First, the team arrives in a fictional 1930s Boston where all white students and staff welcome them warmly. Second, they’re looked after by a black room attendant in a white jacket (Damien Leake), who is so well educated that he can help them in formulating a fine point in their argument. The point is clear enough, reflected in James Junior’s eyes as he and his teammates absorb what they’re seeing: smart black men are relegated to limiting and frustrating jobs, then and now. Winning a debate at Harvard doesn’t guarantee their escape from scary East Texas. And even an escape to Harvard doesn’t guarantee racial uplift.
The Great Debaters is similarly caught between rocks and hard places. Admirable and earnest, it’s dogged by formulaic rhythms and contrived plot turns. It’s the sort of tradeoff Oprah makes daily, finding ways to represent those histories and experiences that are otherwise unrepresented—ways that will appeal to a broad base and so, somehow, make differences.