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The Great Debaters

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    The Great Debaters

    Brief Summary

                The film is based on a true story that happened in Texas during 1930s. An ambitious English educator and social activist named Melvin B. Tolson (as played by Denzel Wahington) molded a group of students into an extraordinary debate team. Professor Tolson of Wiley College Texas has inspired his students to establish the first debate team of the school (Laufenberg, 2005, p. 688). At first, his goal as the team’s coach is to face-off against debate team of other black colleges. Surprisingly, the team defeated even the best black debating team in the state.  Their biggest dream is to reached the national championship level and face Harvard’s team.

                The temperamental coach uses strong words to whittle and challenge the reasoning ability of his team. Professor Tolson envisioned that the students will make a huge difference not only for themselves, but also for many other black Americans (Pinn, 2001, p. 153). The debate team of Wiley College comprises of students with different personalities and attitudes which Professor Tolson needs to deal with.

    An asset of the debate team, a young man named Henry Lowe is an aggressive, straightforward and a wide reader guy with so much knowledge about all topics; while Smantha Brooke is the only female member of the group who’s aspiring to be the third female black attorney from Texas. Smollett believes that all her experiences will guide her in reaching her dreams. The son of Dr. James Farmer, Sr. who’s a professor and a preacher at the Wiley College Texas is also a member of the debate team. James Farmer, Jr. is very young of his age and possesses lesser experience. On the other hand, he is still a genius young man. The last member of the team is Hamilton Burgess who’s very conservative and apprehensive when it comes to controversies regarding their debating team.

                The association of these four students together with their families was perceived as an act of heroism in their journey to be recognized and be given equal rights in their country where they only have limited access.


                The Great Debaters may be a slow-moving kind of film but it does an impressive job in creating a bond between the viewing public and the characters of the said film. Large and relevant issues subjected the characters to show-off their true nature as human beings. No one’s perfect in this world and human beings have flaws that must be prevailed over to realize the value of life and freedom (Condit and Lucaites, 1993, p. 1).

    The debate team of Professor Tolson play against dangerous implications that almost killed them, but it didn’t stop them to do their own thing. Perhaps, it unleashes their courageousness, boldness, cleverness and most of all, it taught them to the meaning of unity.

                Upon seeing the movie, a sudden rush of self-reflection will quietly gush onto the movie watchers. Years and years have passed, but the story of The Great Debaters is still happening at present. The chances for black people have been laid on their feet since then but are they really accepted by the present population? How far do we need to go to change the tracks of black people?

                Blinded by the fact, the film presented heroes in different forms. Main characters of the flick highlighted their achievements and serve the spectators with heroism. Moreover, they were admired by white Americans regardless of their skin color which in real life during that time was a little hard to believe.

    Too many films about racism has been made over the last six decades of this century and it shows the viewing public and the country what the Civil Rights movements are trying to mend. For each film, there may be two grounds that the creator is attempting to avoid, the first one is to berate and the second one is the ability to show the true unsightliness of what went on.

    Either of the given reasons, the movie picture possibly became manipulative or controlling during its filming to somehow conceal the fact that we are not yet removed from such time that being black is a risky matter.

    Black Americans and Civil Rights

                “During the Jim Crow Era, African Americans were neglected from many forms of liberty which include education, economic, political and social aspects (Richardson and Johanningmeir, 2003, p. 182).” The segregation of black and white schools have psychological effects on African American children. A study which is called the “doll test” revealed that most black children prefer the white dolls compared to the black dolls handed on them. The study shows that many black children are longing to have the same education rights enjoyed by the white Americans.

                “Black Americans perceived that education is the primary course to withdraw racial discrimination and education is an essential key for black people to experience liberty (Jones-Wilson, 1996, p. 147).” For this reason, many brilliant blacks aspire to become a well known educator. Teaching, as a profession, is highly valued by many African Americans although the segregation of schools caused black schools to receive much lesser funds compared to white schools. Fortunately, under the Federal Law, both black and white teachers received the same scale of remuneration. Many exceptional black educators pursue their studies for an advance degree and several black teachers arise and taught on well acclaimed schools from major cities specifically in New York, Chicago and Washington.

                Similar to Professor Tolson, education became the avenue for many black Americans to have major accomplishments. Even though there are so many difficulties, black people never stop from seeking education. The black population barely receive updated knowledge until the government allowed black people to teach within their local areas.

                Alliances from the north helped finance regular schools and universities in educating African American teachers. In addition to that, other professional classes were created. Historically, black colleges and universities marked the commencement of African American’s fraternities and sororities. Black people formed such organizations to set lifelong connection and partnership with their fellow black people. The formation of new organizations strengthened community life. African American parents supported and convinced that education will make a difference in the lives of their children.

                 Many black people moved away from plantations of their former white masters to search for an employment and most of them formed an all-black congregation. Their children were enrolled in an all-black school and taught by African American teachers. When the US government gained controlled of the local governance, black schools suffered so much to a greater scope depending on their local community officials. Even black officials were given less opportunity to pursue their political ambitions. There was an incident that a black public official was removed from his seat in the US Congress (Higham, 1999, p. 74). This is how the African American people gone through during those times that disparity was extensive.


    The motion picture, The Great Debaters may somehow remind the American people about the history of black people from the past. But definitely, it tries to conceal the fact that black people are still somehow being neglected in so many ways. The movie was not able to give details of what’s the real thing that happened during 1935 with regards to education of African American people. There were numerous black personalities that became famous and well-celebrated, but this would not erase the mark that many white people still recognize black population as the slave of America. Until this day, no one knows what would it be like to have a black American president in the future. Perhaps, the time has come to turn the table of black Americans – if given the chance.


    Condit, C. M., Lucaites, J. L. (1993). Crafting equality: America’s Anglo-African word. USA: University of Chicago Press.

    Higham, J. (1999). Civil rights and social wrongs: Black-white relations since World War II. USA: Penn State Press.

    Jones-Wilson, F. C. (1996). Encyclopedia of African-American education. USA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

    Laufenberg, N. B. (2005). Entertainment celebrities. USA: Trafford Publishing.

    Pinn, A. B. (2001). By these hands: A documentary history of African American humanism. USA: NYU Press.

    Ricahrdson, Theresa R., Johanningmeir, Erwin V (2003). Race, ethnicity, and education: What is taught in school. USA: AIP


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