Feb 232009
Authors: By Majorie Hamburger

As Black History Month comes to an end, I encourage people to watch a movie that proudly brings a historical and emotional experience to life.

“The Great Debaters,” directed by Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey, is a monumental film based on the true story of Wiley College’s unstoppable debate team.

In 1935, this team from an all-black college in Marshall, Texas, not only beat all the other black colleges in the U.S., but also went on to compete in the national championship against Southern California (Harvard was used in place of USC in the film).

This is the account of Wiley’s debaters during a time when prejudice was rampant and discrimination was legal and widely practiced. In the age of the Jim Crow South, segregation plagued everyday life. For the black students at Wiley College, education was the only way out.

The coach and professor, Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), views debating as a “blood sport” that can be used as a tool to prove blacks are just as qualified and intellectual as whites. As he said, “Your weapons are words.”

Wiley’s debate team consists of three select students carefully handpicked by Tolson who join together in a common effort to enhance racial equality through education.

The members include Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the gifted intellectual who often reverts to unfavorable habits to relieve the painful experiences he encounters; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only female to make Wiley’s team; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the youngest member (14-years-old) who later founded the Congress of Race Equality in 1942 and led several civil rights movements during the ’50s and ’60s.

The coach and team members play their roles admirably. When faced with relentless racial challenges, each character responds uniquely, whether that entails overlooking the situation, drinking away sorrows, or taking defensive actions despite the harsh consequences.

Though their journey to becoming champions is raided with hostilities, the team never accepts defeat. In a way, this is a coming-of-age story that allows each individual to grow and gain understanding about the world they live in.

The 1935 debate team started a record for Wiley College, maintaining the title of national champions for more than 10 years.

“The Great Debaters” is a must-see that is able to give remarkable insight on the challenges the team faced and the courage they had to overcome these adversities.

Staff writer Marjorie Hamburger can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

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