I went to see this film under the misguided belief that it was going to be yet another feel good movie about teaching and its rewards. I find that these films almost always collapse real issues into an after school special format that allows people to overlook systemic oppression and the price various people pay to confront it in order to posit a static image of lumpen (students) and savior (exceptional teacher). Yet, I couldn’t help but go after I saw the Washington/Tolson speech in which he says “I am here to help you find and keep your righteous mind.” As someone whose pedagogy is based on that same principle, how could I not?
Yet this is not the black Dead Poet Society, instead The Great Debaters was a well written and mostly well acted critique of the current lynching atmosphere in which we find ourselves living. It asked us to remember a time when this country’s divides were upheld by liberal and conservative alike under the pain of torture and death and yet, both black and white people dared to swim those dangerous waters together for a better day. Lest you miss the real point of the film, the final debate topic The Role of Civil Disobedience (and the law) clearly drives the message home.
Though the overt story is the little Texas “Negro” College making its way in a Harvard world, the covert, or underlying story, is about racial tension, class consciousness, the line between those who work within a system and those who are severely sanctioned for trying to change it. The latter in the film run the gambit between threat, loss of academic freedom, and horrific lynching (and no the camera does not turn away, finally, hopefully, silencing those who would claim a noose is just a “prank”).
The performances in this film are also stellar, managing to elevate characters that could easily degenerate into caricature in less capable hands into complex and compelling people, from the young man wrestling so strongly with his demons that neither drink nor books can save him to the wives who defuses an argument with sweet potato pie, the images are familiar but never trite. Not surprisingly Washington and Whitaker deliver the most complex performances, but even the minor parts of white and black share croppers and debate teams from other schools should be watched for what they bring to the table. All though the trailer clearly wants you to be invested in Henry Lowe, often shot to mimic the cover of Native Son, James Farmer Junior’s subtle and heartfelt performance is the one to watch closely. Sadly, although Samantha Brooke is critical to the subplot of the film, and clearly there to remind *everyone* that black feminism is just as old as this country, her performance is far less compelling than I had hoped. As I watched the characters and the story unfold, I was instantly reminded of Faulkner (who I am not a fan of), Baldwin, Wright, Douglas, Martin, Malcom, and so many others in the literary and historical canon of our shared N. American history, though sadly there was no Zora Neale, no Dunbar Nelson. Nevertheless, there is a complexity in each character that eschews criticism about cookie cutter race men and women that I hope viewers do not miss (watch it again if you did & pay particular attention to the grown son of a murdered share cropper, Lowe, Burgess and others). The interplay between the youngest in this film is also a powerful statement about how racism is learned and can easily be missed if you keep your attention solely on the academy award winning adults.
Another surprising twist in the film is that the professor is never more heroic than when he 1. leaves the classroom to engage in radical social change on the ground (saving one of his naive students who gets caught in the crossfire) and 2. when he lets go of his students and tells them that they have learned what he came to teach them and they can now stand proudly on their own. And stand they do. To me this is the meaning of being an engaged educator not the awards or the accolades but the ability to impact real life situations for the better and to empower those students whose marginalization has stolen “their righteous minds.” We are not here to be heroes, we are hear to help our students find, take back, and use the amazing gift of thought and speech and yes, action. And the only way to truly do that is to recognize that the goal is for them to stand on their own not simply parrot the “canned speeches.” (When Tolson’s students spend the all nighter prepping for the debate after their “canned speeches” are called into question, that is when you know Tolson has done his job.)
In the end, The Great Debaters left me both sad about how little times have changed, as people of color still fight to justify their presence on integrated campuses and lynching imagery and blackface happens more often than not on school grounds, and proud of the messages it sends about independence, intelligence, respect, and the ability to overcome what divides us. Many of the choices in this film are not easy and for Harpo film they do really well at not valorizing or judging any of them. The black community comes across as complex and conflicted. The white community does as well.
I went to this movie for a reminder and I walked away appreciative and more knowledgeable about our shared American history. (For those who have not heard of Farmer, Lowe, Wells, nor Tolson before, stay until the end to see what some of their historical contributions were after the came through college, and then get the to a library or bookshop.) Despite its poor box office, clearly others left with the same impression as the supremacist bloggers have lit up with tearing down the film and titling neo-nazi images “the great debaters” to misdirect searches; when they get that deep about it, you know the message about race hatred and civil responsibility hit home.
Now I just have to make a trip to the poetry counter (when you see it, you will know what I mean.)
Many have criticized the inclusion of a female debater as ahistorical feminism creeping its way into this film. Henrietta Wells was a real woman and the first on the Wiley debate team. She was one of the two debaters in the historic debate depicted in the film. Though, like many of the characters in this film, Brooke is a composite of real and imagined, Wells and her participation in the great Debaters is all too real. Read more here.