The Great Debaters
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The Great Debaters, set in the 1930’s, happens at a time when America is starting to change for both whites and African Americans. This movie shows the journey four people take as they face the adversity of being African Americans in America. Three students, under the guidance of Professor Tolson, from a small college in Texas join the debate team, where they challenge and defeat both African American and white schools. During their journey the team witnesses the ugly results of both past and current events in America. The movie shows the characters learning to deal with the emotions and challenges of being an African American debate team and how they strive to meet those challenges head on. When Harvard’s debate team accepts a challenge from the Wiley college debate team, they show the world that color has nothing to do with who you are.
Set in the 1930’s, the movie The Great Debaters shows the struggle happening between the African Americans and the whites. The film introduces you to four characters that are part of a debate team at a small Texas college, Wiley College. The movie shows the Wiley College debate team as they face the many challenges that come from being from an all African American college. Holding a place of importance in American history the real events shown in The Great Debaters show the struggle of fighting for something you believe in.
The Great Debaters has many important scenes that show what it was like to be an African American in the 1930’s. In the movie there are scenes that show whites and African Americans as thoroughly separated in both public and private settings. On the bus scene with Samantha, a Wiley debate team member, the whites enjoy a front row seat while African Americans are forced to sit in the back; off the bus you see a bench labeled whites only, and in Wiley College you notice only African Americans. The separation by skin color also shows that whites where thought superior to be African Americans and as a result received better treatment. As a possible result of this separation, African Americans were beat, tortured, and murdered. Several scenes in the movie show the suffering and fear that Africa Americans endured because of this separation. When James Jr., a Wiley College debate team member, and his family were traveling by car they accidently hit and killed a white man’s pig. James’ father was told to pay much more than the pig was worth and was disrespected by the farmers. While the scene plays out without any injuries, we see the fear that James’ family feels and how they have to submit to the outrageous demands of the farmers because of their difference in skin color. The movie also shows a very real and disturbing method used on African Americans, lynching. Lynching is defined as: to punish (a person) without legal process or authority, especially by hanging, for a perceived offense or as an act of bigotry. Lynching was very commonly done to African Americans, and rarely to whites opposed lynching, without any trial or evidence. In one of the movies more disturbing scenes we see an African American man who has been lynched, hung on a pole, and burned by a mob of white people. While the movie focuses on the poor way the African Americans were treated, it also has scenes that show both whites and African Americans working together. When Professor Tolson, leader of the Wiley College debate team, appears at a
Southern Tenant Farmers meeting we are able to see both whites and African Americans listening to him talk about the unfair treatment of the farmers and African Americans. Later in the movie when Professor Tolson is arrested for being involved in the meeting we see both African Americans and whites cheer for his release. When the debate team makes it to Harvard they are escorted by a white man who treats them as equals, showing that in the 1930’s not all of the white people thought so little of the African Americans. The movie also shows that even though African Americans were never thought of as intelligent by the majority of people they were able to beat the Harvard Elite, the best ranking team in the United States. The Great Debaters has important scenes that show the suffering of African Americans in the 1930’s that relates to the historical events that where happening in that time period.
The Great Debaters is based on a true story that centers on a time when America was starting to change the status of African Americans. The movie starts in the 1930’s when the northern states treated African Americans better and the southern states continued to lynch and degrade African Americans. The movie features James Farmer Jr. who helped the Wiley College debate team win the final match (as an alternate) against the University of Southern California and helped start the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. In 1961 James Jr. became the national director of C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality), where he planned the Freedom Ride. The Freedom Ride was one that featured 8 white and 8 black people and which challenged segregation in the southern states. When word spread that the Freedom Ride was met with violence other similar rides where organized by Civil Rights leaders throughout the U.S. in order to stop segregation. James Jr. later became Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, after a failed attempt at U.S. Congress. James Jr. taught at Lincoln University and co-founded the Fund for an Open Society. The movie also shows very real and disturbing methods used on African Americans, such as lynching. Lynching, along with other methods, was used to threaten and frighten African Americans .One of the movies best historical events was the final match for the debate team. Although the actual final match was against the University of Southern California (USC) and Farmer Jr. was only an alternate, the match itself was close enough to the actual historical event. In the match USC was the debate champion, the match did have the same publicity, and USC was beaten by the Wiley College team. Unfortunately, Wiley College was not declared the champions because they were African Americans. Almost as important as James Jr. was one of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) meetings. The STFU was a real organization that involved both African Americans and white sharecroppers who wanted to improve the working situations. The movie, showing the harsh reality of being an African American before they had rights, was able to re-enforce my opinion that both the American people and government were wrong in committing the acts of violence against African Americans.
Showing the struggle that African Americans had to endure in order to simply be treated as human beings is one of the stronger aspects of The Great Debaters. The Basic human rights, as defined by the U.S. Constitution as it was in the 1930’s, are the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. African Americans were given life and a restricted pursuit of happiness but liberty was never really given in the 1930’s. The freedom to act or think without being controlled by need or force is the definition of liberty. African Americans were not given liberty, not when an African American professor had to submit to the outrageous demands of a pig farmer for fear of his own safety and that of his family’s, and not when African American children were not given the opportunity to learn to the best of their abilities because their schools were under-funded. The American government should have done something to stop the unjust treatment of African Americans. Everyday African Americans were tortured, or worse, whether mentally or physically and the government refused to properly punish the people responsible for such hate crimes. African Americans were not treated as human beings in the early days of American history and The Great Debaters shows that. Although the movie does have some inaccuracies in it, the overall message and story line is true.
Every film has good and bad aspects to it: The Great Debaters is not immune to this. One of the films short fallings is how it portrays the characters, both white and African American. Throughout the movie, the African American characters are portrayed as intelligent, but all of the white characters are seen as idiots, farmers, and rednecks. The Harvard Debate team is shown as intelligent people but they are also portrayed as arrogant and self-centered. The only redeeming white character in the movie is the tour guide for the Wiley college debate team and his role is not long enough to actually show it. While the movie does have its short comings, the main characters are likable and the story line is clear and easy to follow. This film sticks to the true story and shows the serious nature of the time and the difficulties faced by African Americans while keeping the film away from being a boring nature of a documentary. While the film does stray from the actual events and how they happened it stays close enough that the viewer is shown a clear picture of what was happening to the African American people in the 1930’s.
The film gives you the opportunity to see the U.S. in the 1930’s through the eyes of three young Debaters as they face the challenges of being African American in an unjust time. The Great Debaters has love, pain, friendship, fear, and courage in the face of adversity, and will keep you interested until the very last moment. I highly recommend this film for both the message that it sends and the historical relevance of the events that occurred.
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