Tuesday, April 24 , 2018, 2:16 am | Fog/Mist 52º


Cinema in Focus: ‘The Great Debaters’

A lesson of faith and reason is the inspiration for the transformation of lives and a nation.

4 Stars — Inspiring

There are few films that match the level of art and excellence achieved by the creators of The Great Debaters. It is a visual masterpiece as the camera presents dream-like images at times and stark realism at others. The dialogue not only moves the story but also inspires the audience. The acting is exquisite and the directing superb. But what makes this film a true work of art is its moral and spiritual content. Based on a true story of a young professor of an all-black college in Texas in 1935, we are able to experience history as first-hand observers in a little-known event that was foundational to the civil rights movement.

Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a professor and debate team coach at tiny Wiley College, a Methodist school in Marshall, Texas. An administrator and theologian at the school, Dr. James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker),  is a man of deep faith and scholarship and the first African-American with a Ph.D. in Texas. His son, James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, no relation to either man), is a brilliant young student who has entered Wiley at age 14. Raised with both scholarship and faith, James Jr. is molded by home and school to become the cofounder and first national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, a nonviolent civil rights movement formed in 1942 when Farmer was only 21.

Tolson, who was also the son of a Methodist minister, played a primary role in the formation of Farmer and the other members of the Wiley Forensic Society debate team, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). Lowe later became a minister and Booke became a lawyer, and both became primary participants in the cause of freedom for blacks.

The history represented in the film is a masterful combination of the horror of life in the segregated South as the debate team happens upon a back-road lynching, as well as the hope of these young people who effectively debate the necessity for equality and nonviolent resistance of the unjust laws that had held blacks captive. Although some of the facts have been changed for artistic reasons — Farmer’s father was an administrator but never president of Wiley College and the team never debated Harvard but instead won the national championship by defeating USC — the message remains the same: Faith and reason can provide the foundation for transforming lives and nations. That is a lesson worthy of hearing again and again.

In real life, Tolson did earn his master’s degree at Columbia University and taught at both Wiley College and Langston University in Oklahoma. Writing a weekly column, Cabbage and Caviar, he helped create the milieu that brought about desegregation and the civil rights movement. What writers today do you see laying the foundation for future social change?

The joining of faith and reason in the lives of Farmer and Lowe so that both became theologians and political activists is a common aspect of African-American Christianity. What is it about Jesus and His teachings that produces this combination In the film, why did Tolson say he was following the example of Jesus?

The contrast between James Farmer Sr.’s response to the pig farmer and his response to the sheriff shows his skill and understanding of being the most educated black man in Texas. What do you believe gave him the wisdom, humility and courage to live his life as he did?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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