[Name of Student] [Name of Instructor] [Course] [Date] The Great Debaters: Debate as a Unifying Force The 2007 biopic The Great Debaters, directed by lead actor Denzel Washington, is based on the real-life incident of the Wiley College debate team defeating the reigning national champions of the University of Southern California (in the film, Harvard University)…
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The overarching storyline is about the team of four - later three - Black student debaters who begin to find themselves through the act of debating. Henry Lowe, James Parker Jr. and Samantha Booke are an unlikely trio brought together through the debate team. While James is the earnest, disciplined 14-year old son of James Parker Sr., Henry seems to have no family and spends his nights getting into bar fights. Samantha too is initially an outsider; she is not from Marshall, Texas and she is also the only woman in their class and debating team. Henry and Samantha get involved romantically during their preparation for the debates while James, who is also attracted to Samantha, witnesses their coach, Melvin Tolson, engaging in organizing a sharecroppers’ union and its crackdown by the Texas Rangers. Through the various experiences that the three live through – the arrest of their coach, the lynching of a black man, and the final victory at Harvard University – they come together and learn to overcome their differences. The prejudice that they face together while debating actually serves to overcome their minor conflicts – Samantha’s disappointment with Henry, James’s anger with Samantha – and unite as a team. Another way in which debate unites more than it divides is in how it brings the town together. Differing opinions, like those of James Parker Sr. and Melvin Tolson are set aside in the face of the success of the debating team. Tolson’s oratory at the meet of the sharecroppers’ union also serves to bring Whites and Blacks together. This is further demonstrated when the sharecroppers, both White and Black, protest against the arrest of Tolson and pressurize the sheriff into releasing him. The debate also brings up issues like the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre at Amritsar in India, in 1919, and the similarity of the situations of the Indians at the hand of the British and the Blacks in erstwhile Southern America. By their reference to Gandhi, the Wiley College debate team is successful in drawing parallels with other instances of discrimination and racial hatred from across the globe. This too leads to a greater sense of solidarity and unity, even among people who are apparently very different and in different circumstances. In showing the plight of the sharecroppers, The Great Debaters is successful in bringing out the commonality of the problems faced by poor farmers, irrespective of their race. Both Black and White sharecroppers have terrible working conditions and very little freedom to call their own. Their strife against the overlords also brings them together despite their racial differences. My own reaction to the movie has been largely positive. The film has some fine, understated acting, especially in the roles of James Parker Jr. and Henry Lowe. It manages to keep the suspense on right from the beginning and does not make the mistake of running for longer than the viewer can stay awake for. The characters of the wives of Tolson and Parker Sr. are also beautiful and subtly directed. The juncture at which they arrive with drinks to interrupt their husbands’ war of words is delicately depicted. It brings out the often unremarked upon role of the housewives and women of the family in revolutions and struggles across class and race. Since
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