The Great Debaters (2007)

The Great Debaters is a drama movie that takes you back to the pre-civil war era, without the armchair direction characteristic to the films of its ilk. Denzel Washington strikes a sensitive chord through the subtle racist gestures of the period. . The movie revolves around the debating team of an all-black Wiley College of Texas  that is handpicked by Professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington).   The team consists of Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a troubled teenager who is a gifted orator; Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett), an aspiring attorney; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) and James Farmer Jr. a precocious debater. The teams debate with the arguments prepared by their mentor Tolson, an intellectual intrusion that is generally discouraged by debating societies. However, Tolson makes his stand clear to his team, that under any circumstances, only he would have the authority over their interjections and argumentative proceedings. The young debaters go on to beat the very best of teams.

One of the Ivy League schools (that happened to be all white institutions until the end of World War II) notices their impressive streak and invites them for an ideological grappling. At the peak of their debate preparation, Hamilton Burgess drops out from the scheme of things, objecting to Tolson’s communist inclinations. The debate on “Allowing blacks into white institutions” is arranged in the College backyard lawns rather than their auditorium, fitting for the pre-civil war times. The Lowe-Brookes duo outshines their Caucasian opponents and go on to garner a debate invitation from the University of Harvard, the reigning champions.  However, in reality, it was the University of Southern California that invited the Great Debaters but the writers chose Harvard to highlight the height of the achievement. Their consequent triumph was met by an ugly turn of events as the group along with Tolson falls prey mob lynching. Helpless, they barely manage an escape. It profoundly changes the lives of the individual debaters.

Overall, the plot doesn’t subvert its story; in fact it helps the story to unfold at its own comforting pace. The preponderant part of the movie engages itself in an intellectual discourse rather than centring on the Afro-American conflict. Despite its sensitivity, the movie seems to be a commercial take on black history.. The topics of the debate are too utopic and are concerned with the Afro-American emancipation. It was disappointing to see that the Wiley team is never directed to speak against the motion.

Ankit Maheshwari