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The Great Debaters Movie Review

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The Great Debaters (2007 film)

Director: Denzel Washington

Plot (ideas that drove the film):

The plot begins when Professor Tolson asks the class to come out and try for the debate team for tryouts.  Later about forty students show up to his house to debate with each other.  He only ends up taking four students.  Henry Lowe and Hamilton Burgess are taken as the primary debaters and Samantha Booke and James Farmer, Jr. are the alternates.  They begin training with unusual methods.  They show a scene where they have cork in their mouths and are repeating a mantra of words.  After training they are eventually told that they will have a debate in a week.  Professor Tolson tells them that he will write the speeches they deliver.  They then go on a streak of wins becoming undefeated.  Meanwhile, the Farmer Family are out on a drive one day and James Farmer Sr. hits and kills one of the farmer’s pigs.  The farmer humiliates Farmer Sr. in front of his family.  He demands twenty-five dollars as a payment, but Farmer Sr. only gives him his seventeen dollars check as retribution.  During this streak of debating you learn that Professor Tolson has been trying to organize a union of the sharecroppers both black and white.  During this win streak Professor Tolson has been sending letters to different schools for a debate.  Eventually they get an invite from the Oklahoma City University.  Unfortunately, Hamilton quits the team because his parents don’t like the political activities Tolson has been doing in the background.  The Wiley team wins with Samantha Brooke as the other primary.  One night while the team is driving they are presented with a mob.  They get away, but Samantha is so disturbed that she quits the team.  The next debate Farmer Jr. must step up, but they lose their first loss since the winning streak.  Time later Professor Tolson finds out that Harvard wants to debate with Wiley.  They accept and get to Harvard.  Tolson tells them that he will not be there as he doesn’t want his activities to take the attention away from his team.  During their preparation, Jr. and Henry get into a fight and Henry walks off.  Jr. decides to become the primary alongside Brooke.  They successfully argue that civil unrest is in fact moral and a better alternative than violence is.  You are shown that the Professor was in the audience watching as they performed.  The film then ends and you learn about the historical background of the characters.            

Historical setting:

This film was produced during the late 2000’s.  This decade was known for the growth of the internet and contributed to the globalization of the world.  The economic growth during the 2000s had considerable social, environmental, and mass extinction consequences.  This is defined by the financial crisis of 2007-2008.  The financial crisis was from the result of the housing market crashing within the United States.  If you are unfamiliar with the financial crisis I highly recommend watching The Big Short.  

Racial issues presented in film:

A racial issue that I saw throughout the film was the educated black man.  Most of the cast within this film is shown as being extremely intelligent.  There was a stark contrast between the educated black man and racist/stupid white man.  Many times, during the film the black man took the high road and just talked with their actions.  

How were these issues resolved?

You can argue that Wiley College beating Harvard was a resolution, but it was only a battle win within the race war.  Ultimately, there were still many years until real political and social change would occur.  

Was the story realistic, or mythic?

The story was based upon true events so I would have to guess the story was realistic.  I did some research on the actual true story surrounding Wiley College and Melvin B. Tolson.  Apparently, Denzel faced a lot of criticism for the movies blunders.  Specifically, the scene with Harvard and their participation within the film.  In real life, Harvard did not debate with Wiley College and the actual champion at the time was the University of Southern California who Wiley truly beat to become champions.    

How was the protagonist in the movie portrayed?  In a negative or positive manner?

I believe the protagonist in this film was Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington).  He was portrayed in a positive manner who faced discrimination that he did not deserve.  Tolson was a great professor and really challenged his students to think for themselves.  He fights for what he believes in.  For example, when he was trying to persuade the local farmers to form a Union he was passionate and not afraid to face the consequences that surrounded him supporting that.  He was basically arrested for trying to make the farmers team up.  He was a passionate guy and pushed his students to achieve something that no one else thought they could.        

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