Movie Review: The Great Debaters

Saturday Heather and I watched The Great Debaters, a show produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Denzel Washington based on the actual 1935 debate team from then-exclusively black Wiley College in east Texas who did so well locally and regionally that they were eventually invited to debate against Harvard in Cambridge. How much of it is true I don’t know, but the story is compelling, the acting is good, and the message is very important.

It made me think about a lot of things, among them:

In a debate against all-white Oklahoma City University at an off-site location (a religious revival tent in the middle of nowhere) an OCU debater had said that segregation was not right, but the South was not yet ready for integration–it just wasn’t practical. The Wiley College debater, a girl named Samantha Booke (later a civil rights attorney) rebutted (in, if you ask me, the most powerful moment of the film) that “the time for justice is always, is ALWAYS, now!” This statement encapsulated the meaning of the film for me–too bad it was buried in the middle. Anyway, this is a huge life-lesson. Christianity’s greatest heroes did what was right and let the consequence follow. They didn’t worry about practicality, expediency, realistic expectations, etc.

On the other hand, it leaves the question somewhat unresolved. One of the debaters, Henry, calls going to the off-site debate “taking crumbs from Massa’s table” while the others agree it’s a step forward. Henry also starts to leave a car at the end of a lynching they had stumbled upon to cut down the body of the victim, but he’s restrained by the professor, to fight another day in a better way. A third scene has the school’s president, having struck with his car the pig of a poor white sharecropper (who has a gun), signing over his monthly salary check to pay for the dead pig. I found it very interesting and compelling that the question is never neatly answered.

There are several scenes of violence and oppression that all occur either in the dark or in remote, hidden places. However, when the “powers that be” (force, badges, guns, etc.) are forced to operate in public and daylight, their cruelty, injustice, and abuse of power is exposed and opposed by the outraged majority. This brings to mind the push toward secrecy that the Bush administration has effected. They use the same reasoning that the good ‘ol boy sheriff in the movie does—it keeps control, preserves the culture, protects the “interests of the community.” The national interest is equivalent to the traditional culture in 1935 Texas—it is a system set up to serve the elite and ensured by fear, force, secrecy, and ignorance.

My high school football coach used to say that a game is won in four or five plays–the problem is you don’t know which plays they will be, so you have to give 100% every play so that you’re in the right place doing the right thing when one of the few plays happens. This also is a great life lesson. These debaters did not know, going into the debate season, that they would end up making an historic appearance in the hallowed halls of Harvard, broadcast on national radio. But through good preparation and performance, they were able to contribute in a very positive way to the early civil rights movement. So should all of us prepare for the moment when our influence is needed. When the microphone is in front of us, will we have thought enough about the essence of life to give a meaningful, positive, productive answer? Will it be based in reason or conjecture, fact or rumor, goodness or worldliness?

As can be seen, the movie lived up to the old cliché of being “thought-provoking.” I would suggest it to most adults.


Mike W. says:

“the time for justice is always, is ALWAYS, now!”

This is a powerful statement. The question it begs, though, is what is justice? What determines justices? Are laws what makes things just? Man-made laws are a false justice (sometimes they are a reasonable attempt) because they are made by individuals with huge biases and weaknesses and ulterior motives. I don’t think that justice is accomplished by enacting laws. It’s a step in the right direction, but the hearts of the people have to change.

Look at the South after the 14th amendment. Nothing changed. In fact, because the laws were imposed by a more powerful sovereign than the states and communities in which the freed slaves lived, the states and communities disregarded the laws (or made others to circumvent them) and the people didn’t change their hearts, even those in the North. Only after some non-violent resistance were the hearts of enough Americans changed to the point that enacted laws had the power to execute justice for those who were still held in partial slavery.

Thus only changing the hearts of individuals and subsequently communities can result in justice. Legislation is necessary, but will only work after hearts are changed.

Centrist says:

Agreed. Another quote from the movie cites St. Augustine (I think) who said “an unjust law is no law at all” (I think I got the quote right).

Laws are only as good as the will of the people to observe them. The difference between Nigeria and Ghana is stark despite their relative proximity. Nigeria is lawless, not just in the context of crime, but in the context of order–no one waits in line, they all crowd to the front; traffic lines and signals are ignored; people constantly (although superficially politely) interrupt others’ conversations; there is no culture of maintenance of buildings, roads, vehicles, etc.

In Ghana, on the other hand, people respect a queue and traffic laws; they are truly polite; they take pride in the appearance of their community, and the place feels safe. Somehow the Ghanaians have taken to heart the “order” that must accompany the “law.”

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