The Great Debaters, film about anti-racism in the 1930s USA


This video is called The Great Debaters – Full Trailer.

By Helen Halyard:

The Great Debaters: An enlightened struggle against racial oppression during the Depression

13 February 2008

Directed by Denzel Washington, written by Robert Eisele, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions

The Great Debaters offers a fictionalized and limited account of the exploits of the award-winning Wiley College debate team headed by Melvin B. Tolson, an African-American English professor, during the Depression years. Beyond his academic duties, Tolson was an accomplished poet, journalist and social activist.

Before this film was produced, very little was generally known about Wiley, a small college with only 400 students, or its debating team. The team had a remarkable record, going 10 straight years without a loss from 1929 to 1939. What’s more, the team’s opponents included much larger black universities, including Fisk, Morehouse, Virginia Union, Lincoln, Wilberforce and Howard.

Tolson’s debaters became so well known that they were invited to participate in the first interracial debate ever permitted. The contest, which took place in Oklahoma City in 1930, pitted Wiley College against the University of Oklahoma. Five years later, before an audience of 1,100, Tolson’s team won the national championship in a debate with the reigning champions from the University of Southern California. (In a seemingly unnecessary substitution, the film has a group from Harvard University as the opposing team for this historic event.)

Founded in 1873, Wiley College is one of the oldest black colleges west of the Mississippi River. It was established by the Freedman’s Bureau in the period called “Reconstruction” during the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, a time filled with hope among former slaves who yearned for equality, education and justice.

This is the second film directed by Denzel Washington, following Antwone Fisher in 2003, a story about a youth embittered by traumas inflicted by the foster care system. While the subject matter of the current film raises important historical questions, its treatment tends to be predictable and clichéd.

Washington does an admirable job portraying Professor Tolson. The winner of three Oscars, including one for best supporting actor, playing a runaway slave in the 1989 film Glory, he brings out the best in the younger members of the cast as well.

The Worst Massacre of Blacks by Whites in U.S. History–And the Lesson It Teaches Today: here.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the pre 1940 movie industry: here.

3 thoughts on “The Great Debaters, film about anti-racism in the 1930s USA

  1. DVD: The Great Debaters

    “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 Denzel 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.’

    “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. …

    —Excerpted from a WW movie review by Larry Hales.

    DVD, special features, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, NTSC, Widescreen, 124 minutes

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