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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