The Great Debaters is a fictionalized treatment of the superlative debate
teams coached by Melvin Tolson at Wiley College in the 1930s. Wiley was a tiny
all-black college in a small Texas town. Tolson was a charismatic English
teacher who would later become a significant poet in his own right. He had been
a debater in his own academic career, and from the time he came to Wiley as a
teacher he undertook to organize a debate team. He was a driven man who drilled
his students frequently and pushed them hard. Over the years his teams became
perhaps the best in the entire nation. During one stretch they were undefeated
for ten years.
The film's version of the story is a suitable homage to the triumphs of
Tolson and his debaters, but is not historically accurate. Some of the
characters are historical, while others are only composites based on real
people. Some of the events happened more or less as pictured, while others have
been conflated in order to consolidate approximately a decade into a single
year, and still others never happened at all. Here's a rough guideline:
The groundbreaking debate with Oklahoma City University, which was the first
mixed race debate in the South, did happen and it did feature the Wiley team's
only female member, but it happened in 1930, four or five years before the
events pictured in the film.
The film's climactic event, the big debate with Harvard, is fictional.
Tolson's son and James Farmer Jr, a historical character who is also a major
character in the film, have both declared that the creator of the myth must have
confused it with some of the team's other successes.
"Benjamin Bell was a member of
the 1936-39 team. He is also the unfortunate source of a recent widely-spread
rumor - that Wiley College met and beat Harvard College, with Felix
Frankfurter as one of the judges. The story first appeared, with Bell's
attribution, in Sherman's American Legacy article. But there is no evidence
that a debate with Harvard ever happened."
But the film's account of that debate is not entirely fictional. It's based
closely on another incident, with Harvard's color plugged in to the letter
jackets. The film's portrayal of the Harvard debate is a fairly accurate
rendering of what actually happened when Wiley's team defeated the genuine
national champions in 1935. Both teams appeared in tuxedos, and the debate was
presented with great pomp and circumstance in a gigantic auditorium, in front of
2200 people. In fact, it happened quite a bit like the film's version of the
debate. It just so happened that the 1935 national champion was USC, not
Harvard, so the debate took place in California rather than Massachusetts and
the topic was arms control, not civil disobedience. In the film's version of the
story, the 14-year-old James Farmer was a freshman who took center stage that
day. In the real debate against USC, Farmer was a 14-year-old freshman, but was
an alternate on the team and was an observer that day.
The film represents the
1934-35 Wiley team as having consisted of a woman, the 14-year-old prodigy named
James Farmer Jr. and a rebellious charismatic genius with a wild streak. They
three of them are also involved in a bit of a romantic triangle. Only one of the
characters (Farmer) is purely historical and, although the other two are based
on historical figures, the three central historical characters never debated
together. The only female member of the famed Wiley squads was named Henrietta
Bell (Samantha Booke in the film), and she debated around 1930. The wild genius
(named Henry Lowe in the film) was based quite closely on Henry Heights
(High-Low, get it?), a brilliant man who was on Tolson's team on and off for
more than four years because he kept getting expelled for drinking. Heights
debated with Ms. Bell back in the early 30s (they were freshmen together) and
was on the team with Farmer in the mid-30s, but the three of them never formed a
single squad. The historical Heights was actually one of the tuxedoed students
who defeated the 1935 national champions, but the fictional Lowe is pictured
stepping aside so the young Farmer could have his moment in the sun. Ms. Bell
was no longer on the team when they defeated USC. The other member of the Wiley
team which defeated USC that day was named Hobart Jarrett, and he seems to have
been cut from the script in the condensation process. Mr. Jarrett went on to
become a professor of English at Brooklyn College.
As for the romantic
triangle ... well, the woman and the wild man were on the team together for a
while, and the young prodigy, though not yet a student at the university, might
have been on campus during part of that period because his father taught there,
so I suppose it is plausible to speculate that there were sparks between the
older couple, and it is not out of the realm of possibility to speculate that
the younger boy was jealous because of his own crush on the sophisticated older
woman. Maybe some of that sexual tension really happened. Probably not.
verdict on the fictionalization is that the script does represent the true
spirit of the events which transpired during Tolson's reign, but one cannot
count on the film's names, dates, and events for strict historical accuracy.
Everything is true and nothing is true. It is not accurate by the standards of
documentaries, but it is more than accurate enough by the standards of
"Although the Wiley team did defeat the national champions, we couldn't
find documentary evidence that they actually debated Harvard University.
Nonetheless, we felt for our story Harvard best embodied Wiley's incredible
achievement and conveyed the real Wiley debate team's true sense of
accomplishment. In that era, there was much as stake when a black college
debated any white school, particularly one with the stature of Harvard. We
used Harvard to demonstrate the heights they achieved."
Denzel Washington directed the film and also stars as Tolson. While
university debating in America is basically a geek activity for intellectuals
and policy wonks, Denzel did not target the movie at the intellectual or
arthouse crowd. It's purely mainstream Hollywood. The actual debates have been
reduced to stirring speeches suitable for the sound bite era. That's the very
antithesis of what real debates consist of, and those emotional appeals and
personal anecdotes are the very sorts of arguments which Tolson would have
trained his team to avoid. These orators speak like preachers, not debaters, and
they conveniently get to speak in favor of the issues they support emotionally.
In real life, the black kids might have had to argue against allowing
African-American students to enter public universities, and the white kids from
Oklahoma City might have had to argue in favor of it, and both sides would have
done just as thorough a job as if they had been on the opposite side. Since
Tolson's teams almost never lost, they must have been brilliant at supporting
arguments they opposed emotionally. Showing a bit of that might have made for
quite a profound film, and the conflict between their words and their beliefs
might even have made for intense drama and character development.
Great Debaters is not that movie. It is basically structured as a typical
feel-good sports movie in which the noble underdogs rise up at the end to
overcome the smug and highly favored national champions, as indicated by a
stirring orchestral score. As it turns out, I like historical romances, I like
Denzel Washington, I like sports movies, and I was the captain of my own
college debate team, so the movie was pretty much made just for me, just as
Black Snake Moan was made especially for Tuna. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed it,
despite its occasional lapses into Hollywood cliché. It is an inspirational
presentation of accomplishments which deserve to be remembered. Wiley's teams
really were as good as the film claims, and their achievements were not just a
tribute to some individual efforts, but also spoke metaphorical volumes to the
disbelieving white people of that era about the range of things black people
could accomplish. Some of the film's lessons seem obvious to us now, but they
were not obvious to the people of the thirties. It was truly a great
accomplishment when a college with 500 black students in a rinky-dink Texas town
defeated the national champions at a university activity of any kind, let alone
one so cerebral as debate. That accomplishment deserves to be accompanied by a
I found one element of the film's stirring finale to ring false.
The three debaters had originally been sent to Massachusetts by themselves
because of Professor Tolson's legal problems. Somehow, through machinations
never explained by the script, Tolson manages to get to Massachusetts just in
time to rush to the debate and stand in the balcony so he can tearfully watch
his students receive their trophy.
There was one other thing I found
exceptionally irritating: the film gives us the formulaic "word slide" treatment
at the end, and tells us what happened to the real characters like Tolson,
Farmer and Farmer's father. No problem with those three, who are all important
figures in American history. Young Farmer went on to found the Congress of
Racial Equality, and Tolson became a world-renowned poet. But the word slides
also tell us what happened to the fictional characters! Huh?
screenwriter, need a clue? Here's one: nothing happened to them. They never
It has been nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture -
No nudity. It is a family movie.
Have a nice Christmas Eve. I'll
catch you on the flip side of Santa's visit ...