“Great Debaters”: Worth Seeing Despite Minor Flaws

Yesterday, I caught a screening of “The Great Debaters,” the new Denzel Washington film (produced by Oprah), and it’s definitely worth seeing despite some minor flaws. The film, which Washington both stars in and directs, depicts the story of the 1935-36 debate team from historically-black Wiley College, of Marshall, Texas. While it has been criticized for being a formulaic underdog movie, under Washington’s skillful direction the film manages to transcend the formula to tell a compelling story. The young actors at the center of the film do an excellent job in their roles; Jurnee Smollett is particularly compelling in the role of Samantha Booke (a composite based on Henrietta Bell), and her “time for justice is always right now” speech is stirring.   

There are some historical inaccuracies in the film, some of which are more distracting than others. On the less-distracting end, a number of the characters in the film are composites of actual people and the chronology of events are condensed for dramatic effect. For example, as Herb Boyd notes in the scene where the teacher Melvin Tolson (an actual person, played by Denzel Washington) mentions the Harlem Renaissance as a contemporary “revolution,” when in fact, most of the writers and cultural events associated with it had died or moved away from Harlem by 1935. Those are minor and do not distract from the overall narrative of the film. Somewhat more distracting is the exposition early in the film (again, by Washington’s Tolson) about the “Willie Lynch” letter, supposedly written by a slave-owner in 1712 and who’s name is alleged to be the origin of the term “lynching.” There are several aspects about this reference that are historically inaccurate. First, there’s no reference to this ‘letter’ prior to the mid-1990s. Second, the letter (or speech, in some versions) is believed by historians such as William Jelani Cobb of Spelman College to be a hoax. Filmically, the reference to lynching works as it foreshadows later events in the film. And, perhaps more to the point, Washington’s film is intended as a Hollywood-narrative, so the standards for historical accuracy in the piece are somewhat less stringent than if it were intended to be a historical documentary.

The fact that the historical reality of lynching appears in this mainstream feature film is more than noteworthy, it’s truly remarkable given the way it’s portrayed. The young debaters and the teacher are on a late night drive to a debate match through the back woods of East Texas when they happen upon a lynch mob of whites and the hanging, burned body of a black man. As they narrowly escape the lynch mob, the reverberations of that act of terrorism shape the rest of their interactions with each other as well as both the content and performance of the subsequent debate matches. The scene between the two young debaters (Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker) is as powerful as anything I’ve ever seen on film about the impact of racial terrorism on people’s lives. The juxtaposition in the final debate between the law-and-order Harvard debaters and the we-have-an-obligation-to-resist is both an effective dramatic device and a timely commentary on contemporary racial injustice.

The film is a welcome relief from the usual Hollywood-trope of the white screen savior. Unlike films such as “Mississippi Burning” (1988), where director Alan Parker rewrites civil rights history so that white FBI men are the heroes, The Great Debaters never portrays whites as heroic saviors of blacks. Instead, it accurately excavates the history of black resistance to white supremacist terror and tells an ennobling story. The fact that it can tell this story in way that is both accessible and uplifting to a wide audience is a remarkable achievement.