Movie Review – The Great Debaters (2007)
by HELEN GEIB
The Great Debaters is a dramatization of an inspirational true story of a successful debate team from a black college in east Texas during the Depression. While the story’s overly neat dramatic arc suggests the underlying events have been heavily fictionalized, the film’s heartfelt sincerity disarms stronger criticism.
The film is set in 1935 at Wiley College, a small school situated far enough east in Texas that it might as well be in Louisiana. The main characters are the three principal members of the debate team: wild Henry (played by Nate Parker); Samantha (Jurnee Smollett), who aspires to become the third black woman lawyer in the state; and 14 year old prodigy James (Denzel Whitaker), son of the school’s brilliant principal (played by Forest Whitaker). Denzel Washington is Melvin Tolson, the team’s coach and on the side, an organizer for a tenant farmers’ union.
The story has the reliable structure of a sports movie, following the team through a series of contests (on and off the stage) that test the debaters’ abilities, resolve, and friendships. Henry and Samantha fumble through a tentative romance and James strives to prove himself among adults. The season culminates in a historic match against Harvard University’s debate team.
This is an enjoyable and at times quite moving story, but it’s clear that the main purpose of the film is to be a lesson in history and civics for young people of the age cohort of the debate team. In that purpose, it succeeds admirably. Henry, Samantha, and James are sympathetic guides through the film’s re-creation of the Jim Crow South and exploration of key social issues. These are characters that young people will easily identify with. They are smart, talented, and likable, but they are not paragons. They make the kinds of mistakes that teenagers tend to make. That makes their aspirations and achievements all the more compelling.
The debates are essentially teaching tools. In subject and text, the debates are framed as distilled lessons about social welfare programs, segregated education, and civil disobedience. This makes them highly predictable, but the didacticism is appropriate to the film’s educational purpose.
Segregation’s brutal realities mean this is not a film for young children. The PG-13 rating is appropriate; the minimum age is set by a scene where the team witnesses the aftermath of a murder by a lynch mob. If you have children who are old enough to be taught about lynching, you should take them to see The Great Debaters. See the movie together and be prepared to talk about it afterward.