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‘The Great Debaters’: Challenging racism then & now

WW movie review

Published Feb 1, 2008 11:47 PM

How did it come to be that a movie like “The Great Debaters,” starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, was made by the Weinstein Company and distributed by a major motion picture company like MGM, or the fact, even, that the movie was made at all? Of course, having Oprah Winfrey produce the film was no small factor in getting it made.

On the surface from the previews, “The Great Debaters” appears to be simply a feel-good story, on par with other U.S. movies that touched on the conditions Black people faced under U.S. apartheid commonly known as the Jim Crow era, but usually separating particular events from the overall struggle.

Movies such as “Glory Road” or “Remember the Titans,” both Disney films, tell important stories about segregation in sports. They give testament of the willingness and determination of Black people to engage in the struggle against oppression and racism no matter the circumstances, as racism and oppression stretch across all facets of life in the U.S.

However, these films are snapshots of history taken from an overall context and primarily deal with the issue of socialization, of overcoming the racist attitudes of certain white workers and certain institutions.

The difference between a movie like “Glory Road” and “The Great Debaters” is the equivalent of the difference between Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” 1963 speech when he uttered, “Little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” and his last speech in 1968 when he said, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

“The Great Debaters” is based on the true story of the Wiley College debate team, and the events in the film take place in 1935 at the small historical Black college in Marshall, Texas. When the main character in the film, Melvin B. Tolson, played by Washington, first appears on screen he is dressed as a sharecropper running through what looks like a swamp, with a pulsating blues rhythm in the background to the words “Soul is a witness.”

One can easily infer, by the music and the dress of the time, what a Black man could possibly be running from, but that question is never explored in the movie.

Tolson is next seen bursting into a classroom, standing atop a chair—where he recites the Langston Hughes poem which begins with: “I too sing America. I am the darker brother.”

Tolson writes “Revolution” across the chalkboard, walks around the room and recites different parts of the Gwendolyn Bennett poem, “Hatred,” then parts of Countee Cullen’s “Saturday’s Child.”

The parts of the three poems taken together firmly ground the movie.

While the movie is about Tolson’s debaters and the history of the Wiley College debate team, it is equally about the struggle against national oppression, for Black liberation, and it is absolutely about class solidarity—such is the great debate, of the oppressed against the oppressor, the identity of each and the struggle of one against the other.

Tolson, a self-described socialist, was a poet as well as teacher and activist, and famous for the epic poem, “The Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” and for “Harlem Gallery.” His poem “Dark Symphony” begins with: “The centuries-old pathos in our voices/ Saddens the great white world/ And the wizardry of our dusky rhythms/ Conjures up shadow-shapes of ante-bellum years.”

The lines are similar to W.E.B DuBois’ characterization of the songs of slaves as “Sorrow Songs,” beautiful utterances arising from the conditions imposed through the barbaric beginnings of capitalism in North America and the repression and oppression following the defeat of chattel slavery.

Tolson would deal with these kinds of contradictions in his writings and through his teaching.

The movie expresses the struggle through discourse, spoken word. In the Black students’ first debate against white students, Samantha Booke rebuts a white student who epitomizes liberalism and exposes the scant difference between it and outright racism when he says the time is not right for school integration.

Booke states emphatically, “No, the time for justice, the time for freedom and the time for equality is always, is always right now.”

Tolson is shown organizing sharecroppers. Though he was an activist, it is difficult to find specific information relating to whether he was or was not an actual union organizer. When redbaited, Tolson refuses to answer yes or no in the movie but states that it is his business. His writings in real life, however, show a man keenly aware of the evils of capitalism, the contradictions it produces and the importance of struggling internally and outwardly against it.

An important scene where he and others are trying to organize sharecroppers reveals one of the white sharecroppers to be the racist who insulted the father of James Farmer Jr.—the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality.

The effect of this scene is that it displays then and now the backwardness of some white workers and how because of the inherent racism in capitalism, they are a privileged layer of workers that must overcome their racism to be in solidarity with the most oppressed against a common oppressor, the land owners in this case.

The most poignant scene, one that has or will resonate with the oppressed from South Central to Pine Ridge to Iraq, is one where James Farmer Jr., when debating the validity of civil disobedience with white Harvard students, talks of the right of the oppressed to resist by whatever means necessary. He says, “I have a right, a duty to resist, with violence or with civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.”

“The Great Debaters” is a magnificent movie. It puts everything in context and builds to a crescendo. The entire town has become so inspired by the development of the young debaters, to the point of rebelling when Tolson is imprisoned, and winning his freedom from jail.

There are those who would use the movie as a sign of how far Black people have come, but if anything, it is a sign of how far things have regressed and how far Black people have to go. Then and now, liberation is not to be won through electoral bourgeois politics, but is to be waged and won through open class struggle.