The Great Debaters

The best possible preparation . . .

"To share the same campus. To walk into the same classroom. Well, would you kindly tell me when that day is gonna come? Is it going to come tomorrow? Is it going to come next week? In a hundred years? Never? No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!" Samantha

Although debating is described in the beginning of The Great Debaters as a "blood sport," only after viewing the film can the most jaded audience not agree. The true story, fictionalized here but basically accurate, about little Wiley College in Texas, 1935, contending with the premier white college teams across the nation is as formulaic as any underdog sports story. But it's good formula fun and a bit inspirational, not a bad thing.

Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), teacher and poet, takes a foursome of debating hopefuls, and through an application of tough love and wit, shapes them into contenders with the likes of Harvard University. The fact of the matter is that the college won ten national championships in a row, although it was the University of Southern California it faced that first year, not the more dramatic Harvard.

Because this is an Oprah Winfrey production, there is plenty of corn to go around, including a romance that takes too much time and feels contrived. The whole theme of making something of yourself also feels Oprah-like. But when the students are debating, it is heavenly to hear them raise their deliveries and their interaction to higher levels.

Having been a debater who framed his own arguments, I was disappointed that Tolson wrote their arguments, a not unusual action, but one fortunately nixed by their Harvard rivals because then our combatants were willingly on their own.

Interestingly, Tolson is also involved in union activities that may or may not be communist, providing the much needed tension and surprise that the debates don't always offer. However, the film is an inspiration to those of us who value education and see the parallels between debating and traditional sports. Education grounded in critical thinking and verbal jousting is the best possible preparation for that blood sport called life.