Revolution#121, February 24, 2008

Check it out

The Great Debaters

From a reader:

The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington, is a movie not to be missed! Especially at a time when nooses are being hung on a “whites-only tree” in Jena, Louisiana and on the door of a professor’s office in New York City, and appearing in many other places around the country.

The Great Debaters takes place in the 1930s at Wiley College in Texas and is based on a true story. It is a time of Jim Crow and sharecropping. It is a time when Black people constantly faced the threat of being lynched or burned to death, at any moment and for nothing at all. We see the ugly, racist “southern lifestyle” of white supremacy and segregation where Black men were called “boys” and Black people were routinely dehumanized and degraded. This story shows us the ugly history of America but also poses some very real questions for today.

In an early scene in the film, Professor Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, challenges his students to never allow their mind to be chained and to constantly sharpen their intellect—to set their sights high and to engage the debate on the deepest level possible. One reviewer said that “the movie was worth just hearing Washington quoting poetry of Langston Hughes and other powerful voices from the Harlem Renaissance, then in its fullest bloom.”

You see the energy and the developing intellectual rigor of four young Black college students in the midst of Jim Crow. Through Professor Tolson’s tenacious struggle, they learn to debate, blowing away racist stereotypes and ending up in a nationally broadcast debate with Harvard (in real life this debate took place at USC). Did any of us know this story?

In one powerful scene Professor Tolson tells a story of where the word lynching comes from. He says Virginia slave owners were having trouble keeping slaves in line and brought in a West Indies slave owner. The man was named Lynch and was known for his utter brutality—especially how he would literally “draw and quarter” slaves that stepped out of line. Lynch was known not just for these horrific crimes to the body but, even more, he wanted to break the minds of the slaves and brutalize people into fearful submission. This one scene speaks a lot about the history of this country and the foundation this whole system of U.S. capitalism rests on.

And then there is the unforgettable scene where Tolson and his students come face-to-face with the gruesome reality of lynching, while driving down a Texas country road at night.

Denzel Washington, Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey (producer), and a cast of talented young Black actors have created a deeply moving, heartfelt, and thought-provoking movie.

In the theater for a Sunday night showing I went to was an interesting mix of young and old people of all nationalities. And at the end of the movie, people clapped, cheered, and hung around for the credits.

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