The Great Debaters (9/10)
by Tony Medley
It’s almost impossible for
men to know what women want, or, more important, why they want what they
want because of the complete differences between their bodies and
hormones. Similarly, it’s extremely difficult for a white American to be
empathetic with how black Americans feel, think, and react because of
things that don’t relate to skin color.
Not only do most black
Americans know that their ancestors four generations removed were slaves
of white people (a knowledge with which one would have to live to
accurately feel), they have to deal with Founding Fathers who signed a
document that said that “All men are created equal and endowed by their
creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness,” yet allowed blacks to be enslaved by
whites in half of their new country. Add to that the inherent ignorance
and bigotry of the second most revered Founding Father (behind the
Olympian George Washington, who also owned slaves), Thomas Jefferson
(the founder of my Law School Alma Mater, the University of Virginia),
who declared “the inherent inferiority of Blacks to Whites, because they
are more unsavory and secrete more by the kidneys.”
Whites don’t have these
burdens, burdens that are not relieved by time. Anyone who wants to get
a feel for it could read A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to
Freedom; Including their own Narratives of Emancipation by David W.
Blight. This is an eye-opening, spellbinding book about two men who
escaped from slavehood during the Civil War and includes heart-wrenching
descriptions of their relationships with their mothers, also slaves.
But even better than that,
Denzel Washington has directed (and starred in) a film that allows
whites to get a good glimpse of the burden of being black in America.
This film is the highly
fictionalized story of the Wiley College debate team in the 1930s,
coached by Professor Melvin B. Tolson (Washington). Although it is
fictionalized, the characters are based on real people. In addition to
Tolson, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is based on Henry Heights, who,
according to teammate Henrietta Bell (upon whom the character of
Samantha Brooke, played by Jurnee Smollent, was based), was “very suave
and he could say anything in a debate.”
This isn’t just the story
of a debate team, it’s a picture of what upwardly mobile, intelligent
black people faced in the period after the Civil War, and still face
today in some areas, and how they have to react.
One of the B stories is of
the relationship between the youngest debater, James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel
Whitaker, no relation to Forest) and his father, Dr. James Farmer, Sr.
(Forest Whitaker). One beautiful scene reminded me vividly of the dictum
Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson when
he was interviewing Jackie to be the first black baseball player in
major league baseball since 1888, that it takes more courage not to
fight back than to actually fight. It is made more poignant in that Dr.
Farmer has to stand down in front of his son. It is a mesmerizing scene
that doesn’t quickly leave your memory.
The actual true story of
the Wiley College debate team would undoubtedly make a compelling movie.
Even so, this is a highly fictionalized account of the team, compressing
the action into one year, 1935, and necessarily creating fictional
scenes. For example, the climax of the film occurs when the team debates
Harvard at Harvard. There is no record of Wiley ever having debated
Harvard. Director Washington explains, “We leant toward the dramatic
because it is a movie. The story really belongs to the characters of
Henry Lowe, Samantha, James Farmer, Jr., and Hamilton Burgess—the
debaters. It’s about the education of these young kids.”
Although the running time
is 123 minutes, the pace never flags. Washington does an exceptional job
of directing his first-rate cast, all of whom give admirable
performances in telling a story that has many aspects to it. Even though
it is a film by blacks about blacks, it is a movie that whites should
find highly entertaining while offering them a different perspective.
December 13, 2007