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Arguably, "The Great Debaters" Ranks With Greatest American Movies

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Arguably, “The Great Debaters” is the finest movie ever made about the American Dream.

At a time when Hollywood producers are dipping for content into the gutters of gore, director Denzel Washington has created an electrifying message of nonviolent reform that once again lifts the motion picture art to the stars.

Based on a true story set in Marshall, Texas, in 1935, Robert Eisele’s screenplay captures the degradation of racial segregation as few films ever have done.  Using the example of segregated Wiley College's debate team, the script shows how African-Americans had to claw their way inch by inch toward social inclusion. The team struggled for the opportunity to debate white schools and, finally, based on their incredible string of victories, to debate and to defeat Harvard while a national radio audience listened in.

“The Great Debaters” bears comparison with the best American pictures including “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather.”  In the Orson Welles masterpiece “Citizen Kane,” a young man that has inherited a fortune, creates a newspaper chain of unrivaled influence based on sensation and scandal. Charles Foster Kane, however, had wealth and privilege to begin with, yet loses his bid for political power when rival newspapers expose his own scandalous conduct using the very methods he created. 

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In “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone, an immigrant that had nothing to begin with, rises to power as a Mafia don by violence---only to see the sons of his crime family destroyed by it. Both of these classics are morality tales.

“The Great Debaters” is also a morality tale, yet it is very different. Its message is that there is another way; that hard work, enterprise, preparation and perseverance pays off. It shows how “the system” can be changed without resorting to Mafia methods. The inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi is cited. The film’s script speaks eloquently against violence in the scene where the motoring Wiley College debaters accidently come upon a lynching and are lucky to escape from the mob with their lives. (In some years, during the height of the Klan terror in the 1920s, as many as 1,000 Negroes were lynched.)

Without sermonizing, the script portrays the poverty and ignorance of many dirt poor white folk that had nothing of their own except the mistaken belief the color of their skin elevated them to superior status.  There’s an electric scene in which James Farmer Sr., portrayed by Forest Whitaker, (whose performance rivals Brando’s award-winner in “The Godfather,”) runs over a white farmer’s pig and is faced with summary execution for this “crime” but talks his way out of it.  

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The role of the Wiley College debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson, played brilliantly by Denzel Washington, gives American moviegoers a glimpse of a Communist as an idealist, a man who strove to do the right thing for his people. Given a century of historic demonization of Communism and Communists in this country, this is a rare and remarkable achievement. 

Yes, as it happened, Wiley’s debate team had a coach that was a Communist, and one team member resigned because of it. The others debaters saw through the label to recognize that Communists are also human beings, even if they believe in a different economic approach to organizing society. Although Negroes overwhelmingly rejected Marxism then and now, the few that embraced it, such as Tolson, did so largely because the Great Depression revealed tragic flaws of unbridled capitalism and they sought a better system to ameliorate the lot of the underclass.

So it happened that some American Communists in the Depression played a constructive role by their denunciation of racism and by their efforts to organize sharecroppers in rural areas such as Marshall and labor unions in the cities---a fact never acknowledged by Congressional probers themselves guilty of sitting on their hands in the face of the appalling poverty of Negroes and poor whites.

The idea persists, of course, to this very day that professors who are Marxists should not be allowed to teach in universities or in public schools lest they sway students to believe as they do. It is as though the communist ideology is so powerful a siren song it will captivate every mind. Nothing gives this nonsense the lie better than the young James Farmer---a star of the Wiley College debate team  who would go on to organize the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer never embraced Marxism no matter what Tolson thought, nor did any of the other key black civil rights leaders of the Sixties advocate this philosophy. 

If anything, the Wiley debaters showed they could think for themselves. “The Great Debaters” is a movie that could not have been made during the McCarthy Era of the Forties and Fifties. So rigid was societal thought control of the time that the producers and actors would have been forced out of their profession if they dared to portray a Communist as a human being. (Tolson went on to become an internationally recognized poet, his political philosophy not withstanding.)If only Americans had recognized the legitimate right of others to think differently and of other nations to organize themselves under different economic systems, the Cold War, with its trillions of dollars wasted on military spending, might have been averted. President Nixon, for example, might not have ordered the criminal overthrow of the elected government of Chile.

Again, Americans were so frightened of Communism they believed that if Viet Nam went Communist, all Asia would follow. This “domino theory,” of course, proved to be what college debaters call “fallacious.” As “Business Week” reported, within days of the end of the Viet Nam war, U.S. oil companies were dickering with the new Communist regime for offshore drilling rights and, to my knowledge, no oil company president was ever accused of guilt by association. And China, of course, is looking more capitalist every day.

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The idea that all capitalists are good and all communists are evil is simplistic beyond childishness. Maybe what “The Great Debaters” suggests is that there are two sides to every question; that no one economic system has got all the answers; that no one race and no one nation is superior, and that, over time, a sophisticated analysis of all aspects of a situation by inquiring minds may generate an understanding about, and a tolerance for, divergent viewpoints and lead to workable accommodations.

What this country needs are more debate teams like that of Wiley College and more think-for-themselves leaders like James Farmer.  Give this movie four stars for excellence and five stars for courage.                   #(Disclosure: the author once was a member of the University of Miami varsity debate team and is a strong believer in the benefits of scholastic debate. Reach him at


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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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