In 1935, America struggled in the Great Depression; war in Europe was recent history and a looming threat; and Harlem had seen a renaissance. The Great Debaters touches on all these events while settling comfortably into the little town of Marshall, Texas, home of Wiley College, a black school buried in the Jim Crow South. Here Melvin B. Tolson coached the Wiley College debate team from championship to championship, and then into the history books.
The Great Debaters tells the compelling story of the team's rise to glory with the conviction that words are our most powerful weapon for change. One scene forcefully illustrates the point: Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) has been arrested. James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker in a powerhouse performance) comes to the jail with Tolson's wife and lawyer and quietly persuades the racist sheriff to release Tolson without incident.
Without grandstanding, and with righteous indignation muted, Farmer merely allows the words of his argument to work on Tolson's behalf. Farmer accomplishes what the film advocates: Let the keenness of your mind change the world.
Some complain that the film fails to be historically accurate, but Wiley College's history is impressive nonetheless. With Wiley's story, we can look at a shameful time and feel proud of, even awestruck by, those who conquered opposition with their ideas. Such movies should not be for adults only, but parents should note that The Great Debaters is rated PG-13 for a minor sex scene and scenes of violence, including a lynching.