Movie Review: The Great Debaters

TheGreatDebaters2by Brad Nelson
“His (Lynch’s) methods were very simple, but they were diabolical. Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body. Take the mind.”

Substitute “voter” for “slave” and you have much of the Democratic strategy. Those were words spoken by Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. This is a Color Purplish film about the hard times faced by black people in 1930’s America.

Thematically, The Great Debaters initially breaks no new ground in the early going. But the inhumane treatment of black people in this country’s history is still riveting and difficult to watch in places. The impression you have is that the filmmakers have captured exactly how it was in those dark times.

To have to live as a second-class citizen merely because of cosmetic outward appearances is extremely primitive and barbaric. And yet we humans are accustomed to doing so, whether talking about an ethnic person in 1935 or Sarah Palin in 2008. We are that way. Racism, factionalism, and just plain opportunistic stupidity is in our blood. And this movie is a great reminder of that.

But there’s also a debate team in the movie, a subject that I know a little bit about from high school. And had I had Denzel Washington as my debating coach, I would have either not lasted a day or become president of the United States. He’s a hard ass, but he’s very good at inspiring his charges. Oh, and apparently he’s a Communist as well. So along with (rightly) having a movie showing blacks in the South as victims, we now have a Communist sharing the same vibe. But this film is based upon a true story, so maybe that Commie was just there doing his Commie thing.

That quibble aside, the characters in this film are compelling, including Nate Parker as one of the student debaters, Forest Whitaker as the very hard-ass father of one of the other debaters, and Jurnee Smollett as the particularly beautiful first-woman-on-the-team debater.

Debating itself is an interesting sport. You pick a topic such as “Resolved: Free speech should be limited when enough people are upset by it” and then you debate either for or against it. Of course, many people are going to see you as a prick if you can take the “wrong” side of the debat, but that’s sometimes what a debater has to do. And that’s part of the fun as well. Basically that’s what politicians of all stripes do regularly. They change their stances (flip flop), but they do so for votes, not as part of the procedures of a formal debating team. If you think most politicians are frauds, this is why. They are generally good at arguing any side of the debate that is opportune.

Denzel Washington plays a union organizer (“community organizer” of sorts) who is trying to organize the sharecrop workers. I’m not a big fan of unions. As you see with the UAW, they’ve become a big, fat bloated beast and were a large part in gutting Detroit. But back then, without proper laws and a proper ethic amongst farm owners, exploitation could be a problem. And the only way to fight it was to organize.

But there was hell to pay to do that. And we see in this film the many brave stances that many had to take in order to advance justice. We are all wimps, ingrates, and girly-men compared to the people who had to fight true oppression and racism. What we define as racism or oppression today is often nothing more than not having a house given to you for free or for next to nothing.

In the first half of The Great Debaters, your plate is loaded with all kinds of potential themes. One wonders is this will become a “Communists are Not So Bad” movie, a “history of black oppression” movie with a bit of debating thrown in as an excuse to show the former, or something else altogether. As it turns out, it was able to tie most of these disparate elements together into a drama about the human struggle for excellence, justice, and respect.

I have a pretty developed ear for movies that are overt axe-grinders. Sometimes “message” movies can be obnoxious as they beat you over the head with their message. There was every possibility for The Great Debaters to turn into that, especially with Denzel Washington in the lead and Oprah Winfrey’s money backing the production. But it wasn’t until the end of this movie that I realized the integrity of the story. There was no condescension, and no rubbing every white man’s nose in the injustice and barbarity of some. This was an honest story, as moving as it was ugly at times.

But that was the reality back then and is still the reality in some places in the world such as Palestine where they have spent over forty years indoctrinating racial hatred into young Palestinian kids starting as early as Kindergarten. And the world (and much of America) apologizes for this even after living through our own experience of racial barbarity. We learn so little. It is so easy to remain ignorant and to make excuses for barbarity, then or now.

It was refreshing that this movie did not indulge in too much sentimentality. Thank god that the Communist angle was mostly just a side story. That was the story that threatened to derail the moral clarity of the black struggle. And the debate at the end by the actual debaters was very good. I had pangs of nostalgia and I would have liked to have seen a little more of the debate. But they showed enough to give an example of what a formal debate was like.

You’ll note that the debating these kids partake in (and this is true typically in real life formal debates as well) is far more informative and detailed than any presidential debate which is just a sham and typically looks amateurish and sophomoric by comparison to these high school debates.

One may wonder what it is in human nature that makes people such beasts. Why do we need to murder people for superficial differences? Are our egos that weak? I can think of no other explanation. One of the most barbarous traits of humankind is to prey upon the weak as a way to prop oneself up. It’s about as ugly as human nature ever gets and is something to keep in mind when our government policies serve only to weaken people, not lift them up.

And that’s the kind of movie this is. It will make you think, not just feel. The Great Debaters finishes very strong. I give it 3-1/2 drunken midnight angry debaucheries out of 5. There is a very refined sensibility to this movie. Even though it is about the oppression of blacks in the Deep South, it’s not a “disaster of the week” movie. Its themes seem much more universal and the handling of them is adept, not heavy-handed. Although there are few, if any, sympathetic white people in the movie, for the most part this is not the typical “white people are bad” shtick of the modern civil rights movement. This is good stuff. I can get on board with this.

This following is a spoiler regarding The Great Debaters, but the final topic debated with Harvard was something like “Resolved: civil disobedience can be a legitimate and moral process.” Wiley College took the affirmative, Harvard the negative. Wiley (the black college) used the example of Gandhi which, in 1935 or so, was a very recent example. There were some good points made on both sides. On the one hand, society couldn’t function if everyone could just choose the laws they wanted to follow. On the other hand, it is true that what is legal is not necessarily moral. Sometimes laws can simply be wrong. In those cases, the Wiley debaters argued it is a person’s moral duty to engage in resistance, either composed of violence or civil disobedience. And as young James Farmer Jr. said, pray that most people choose the latter. There’s some deep philosophical content in this film at times. • (1959 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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