Political Film Society - Newsletter #298 - December 31, 2007

December 31, 2007


The Great DebatersIn 1935, a debate team from Wiley College for the first time tangled with the top debate team in the United States, Harvard University. How could students from an obscure traditional Black college in Marshall, Texas, receive such an invitation? The Great Debaters, directed by Political Film Society awardwinner Denzel Washington, answers that question and much more. For years, English Professor Melvin Tolson (played by the director) has been organizing the college debate team. About twenty apply in 1935, so auditions are held to select the top two debaters and two alternates. Last year’s debater, Hamilton Burgess (played by Jermaine Williams) is selected to repeat the honors alongside Henry Lowe (played by Nate Parker), who returns to college after serving prison time, where he was able to read and study as never before without distraction. The alternates are Samantha Brooke (played by Jurnee Smollett), the first female debater, and James Farmer, Jr., (played by Denzel Whitaker), fourteen-year-old son of Reverend James Farmer (played by Forest Whitaker). The debate scripts, as usual, are written by the debate coach, who in turn preps the team. Tolson, however, has an extracurricular interest in organizing sharecroppers, Black and White, to form a union, a right conferred by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Naturally, employers are unhappy, and Sheriff Dozier (played by John Heard) takes the side of the employers. The film focuses more time on the debates, but the union organizing inevitably leads to an accusation that Tolson is a Communist, his arrest, and a demonstration in town in which Farmer, Sr., talks the sheriff into releasing Tolson. A romance subplot also spices up the story. Because Wiley College’s debate team is successful, even beating Fisk College, they are invited to oppose the debate team of all-White Oklahoma City College, the first victory of its kind. Personal problems within Wiley’s debate team cause some shifting of alternates into the top positions, and also account for Wiley’s defeat at Howard University.

Nevertheless, letters from Tolson and Lowe to Harvard ultimately result in the invitation from Cambridge. During one of the trips to debate, the Wiley team actually witnesses a lynching, an experience that is cited effectively in the debate with Harvard. The suspense, of course, is whether Wiley can actually defeat the top debate team in the country. However, what is particularly notable in the film, startling to any college professor today, is how extraordinarily brilliant and learned the students are about history and literature, a reminder of how important education was to segregated Blacks. Titles at the end reveal that Wiley College was undefeated in the next ten years, Farmer, Jr., later founded the Congress on Racial Equality, and Tolson succeeded in organizing a sharecroppers union that encompassed thousands of members in several Southern states. Although in actuality the top debate team then was the University of Southern California, not Harvard, the Political Film Society has nominated The Great Debaters as best film exposé of 2007. MH

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Ben Gates (played by Nicholas Cage) goes on another treasure hunt, this time for a Native American gold city that turns out to be hidden under Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the second National Treasure film, again in the Indiana Jones mode, John Turtelraub directs an adventure film that may delight filmviewers of all ages, in which the clues start with eighteen pages missing from assassin John Wilkes Booth's diary and end up in a map pieced together from pages hidden in desks at Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office. A special heroine is Professor Emily Appleton (played by Helen Mirren), who helps to decipher a code written in a defunct Native American language. With the first National Treasure in 2004, we expect a third in 2010, hopefully with more historical content. MH