I Am Happy! The Great Debaters Gives Me Hope and Joy

sarris greatdebates2h I Am Happy! The Great Debaters Gives Me Hope and JoyTHE GREAT DEBATERS
Running Time 123 minutes
Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by Robert Eisele
Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker

Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, from a screenplay by Robert Eisele, based on a story by Mr. Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, enlivens and enlightens this chaotically overcrowded movie season with an intelligently inspirational burst of hope in social progress. The film is set in 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression, and in the vortex of the unreconstructed Jim Crow-lingering lynch-minded Texas Southland, and it tells the largely true story of a visionary professor and the near-invincible debating team he founded at little Wiley College. Back then, African-Americans were designated as Negroes, and that was the polite term in a virulently racist period and region. Blacks were rigidly and sometimes violently segregated from whites throughout the South in those days, and more subtly discriminated against in the North as well. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though clearly preferable to the Republican alternative, was hardly the champion of the Negro against his own solid Southern Congressional base of Bourbon Democrats. Later in the decade, these Anglophile Southern reactionaries would come in handy as a countervailing force against the Midwestern and Far Western isolationists and America Firsters resisting F.D.R.’s heroic struggle to align America with Britain and against Hitler. Yet, in The Great Debaters, F.D.R.’s “fireside chats” are defended as reliable reference sources by the Wiley College debaters as if F.D.R. were their Great White Father in Washington, D.C.

Still, Professor Melvin B. Tolson is on much firmer ground with the New Deal in moonlighting as a shabbily dressed sharecropper seeking to organize white and Negro sharecroppers into a single union. The perils of union organizing are shown through one deadly moonlight raid by a union-busting mob on a peaceful meeting of spokesmen for the sharecroppers. There is also a single terrifying post-lynching experience that leaves a lasting effect on the Wiley College debating team.

These comparatively melodramatic events more than adequately establish the locale’s repressive atmosphere, but the bulk of the film is devoted to the debaters themselves, and to the emotional eloquence of their arguments in an almost unbroken string of victories against teams from larger and richer institutions of learning.

The four members Tolson chooses for the Wiley team are a study in contrasts. Nate Parker’s Henry Lowe is the most troubled and most sexually active member of the team. Jurnee Smollett’s Samantha Booke, Tolson’s surprising choice of a female for the team, is immediately attracted to Henry, much to the chagrin of freshman, baby-faced Denzel Whitaker’s James Farmer Jr., the son of the community’s renowned preacher James Farmer Sr. (played by Forest Whitaker, who’s of no relation). The fourth member of the debating team, Jermaine Williams’s Hamilton Burgess, is one of the two front-line debaters, along with Henry, and their unbeatable partnership wins several debates, with Samantha and James supplying the essential research. When Hamilton learns that Professor Tolson is engaged in a nocturnal organizing activity labeled as “communist” by the town’s ruling whites, he resigns from the debating team rather than jeopardize his chances for a college education by associating with the subversively tarred Tolson.

Samantha takes Hamilton’s place on the debating team, becoming an oddity in the hitherto all-male universe of debating. When finally James gets his chance to debate because of Henry’s temporary defection, he performs miserably, causing Wiley to lose a debate for the first time. But this only sets up his climactic redemption in a debate against Harvard, no less.

At a time when special-effects wizardry seems to rule the roost in contemporary filmmaking, it is intoxicating for this ancient print-freak to be exposed to torrents of well-chosen words, words, words flowing from the soundtrack. Mr. Washington, Mr. Eisele and Mr. Porro are to be commended for supplying the young debaters with the physical and verbal wherewithal to become precocious orators from a largely bygone age in which radio was the dominant medium.

The history of this heart-and-soul-satisfying project is recounted in the film’s production notes: “Some years ago writer Robert Eisele’s friend Jeffrey Porro brought to his attention a two-page article ‘The Great Debaters’ written by freelance writer Tony Scherman in the magazine, American Legacy. Eisele explains, ‘Jeff Porro is a Washington, D.C., speechwriter with a Ph.D. in political science who knew my taste for social realism and gritty, intelligent stories.’

“Eisele immediately recognized the debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson, considered one of the best African-American poets of the twentieth century. ‘I was aware of Melvin B. Tolson’s poetry, since I’m a published poet myself, but I had no idea he had trained on his debate team of the 1930’s—the students who would become the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s.’”

Mr. Washington and Mr. Whitaker play their quasi-patriarchal roles with Oscar-worthy authority. Gina Ravera and Kimberly Elise, as their respective spouses, and John Heard as Sheriff Dozier, the token white establishment villain of the piece, also deserve special mention. All in all, The Great Debaters is one of the happiest surprises of the season; it’s marvelously edifying entertainment you should not miss.