Review of the Great Debaters

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Review of the “Great Debaters1

Timothy M. O’Donnell

Director of Debate and Associate Professor of Communication
I stand before you wrestling with an obscure and forgotten historical figure of the civil rights movement (at least outside of Fredericksburg and Marshall, TX) that has been for all intents and purposes – and I want to be careful here –forever captured by Hollywood and two of the most celebrated figures in show business today – Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington. As most of you no doubt know, the major motion picture – “The Great Debaters” – hit the big screen this last Christmas Day and it generated considerable buzz, if not Oscar gold. It is an extraordinary film – a film that wears well even after several viewings. I can of course say this, because I’m a debate coach, and there aren’t many major motion pictures about debate, unless you count the Kurt Cameron and Roy Schneider blockbuster, “Listen to Me,” among your VHS collection.

While most everyone in this room saw the trailer for the Great Debaters on television, and many know that James Farmer is a central character in the film, far less have probably actually seen the film. It didn’t play on enough screens or attract the audience sufficient to remain in the theaters long enough to make it easy for many in this region to see it. It is, after all, another movie about an underdog who does great things under the tutelage of a legendary coach. Without giving anything away – the DVD will be released in April – this is a film about an upstart debate team from a little black college in Marshall, Texas in 1935. That team, under the direction of Melvin B. Tolson, a person who would go on to become one of the most significant African American poets of the last century, had extraordinary success – particularly in interracial debates with all white colleges and universities. They are said to have racked up a winning streak that lasted for 10 years. If true, such a record has not been matched in intercollegiate debate competitions either before or since.

Although I’m a fan of the film, have hung the movie poster on my office wall, and will tell everyone I know that they should see it, this isn’t to say I don’t have issues with it. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Porro, the screen writer who discovered the 3 page story of the Great Debaters written by Tony Scherman, and published in the American Legacy magazine in 1997. Along with his friend Robert Eisele, they wrote and then pitched the first draft of the screen play to Harpo productions. My issues aren’t necessarily with the screen writers. They got to talk to Farmer in the last days of his life, and they too count him among their heroes. In fact, there is an interesting tale related to the discovery of Scherman’s article. When it crossed Porro’s desk – as a free lance writer, he gets all sorts of magazines – he was instantly drawn to it, because he remembered being an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960s and heard Farmer speak on the campus. That’s pretty much what farmer did – he spoke, and he spoke a lot. And I dare say, had either Porro or Farmer not been at Berkeley on that day, the movie may never have gone from magazine vignette to major motion picture. But I digress. Back to my issues with the film.

First, the James Farmer of this film is cast as a precocious, brooding, awkward, immature and undeniably love struck, 14 year old boy. He was, likely all of those things. But he was also, much, much more and the movie doesn’t really tell us this. Moreover, he’s deployed in a story about the Wiley debate team’s match against the reigning national champions in a debate that didn’t really occur in the way the film makers would have us believe. As virtually every review of the film has noted, the “famous” debate happened at the University of Southern California, and not Harvard; the 1935 Wiley team debated the national intercollegiate debate topic about arms sales to foreign countries and not segregation or civil disobedience; they debated both sides of the proposition, not just the side of truth and justice, and the other three debaters in the film – Hamilton Burgess, Samantha Booke and Henry Lowe - are composite characters which bear little resemblance to the individuals on which they are based. In fact, as one of the real life debaters daughters has asked, “why wasn’t history good enough?” – explaining that she found it troubling that the history of her father and the other real life debaters was elided to make the movie more marketable. Finally, by all accounts, Farmer was – if anything - the alternate in the match against USC - and never did have the opportunity to give the “winning” last rebuttal.

I remember early last spring during my conversations with one of the producers as they were doing final background research, I expressed my considered misgivings and anxiety about what I understood to be the trajectory of the movie because I was unsure and even worried about how Farmer would come off. I knew that he was both a central character in the film, yet historically irrelevant to the national championship narrative the film was going to depict. At the time, she told me, “don’t worry, you’ll love what we do with him.” I now understand why. In the movie, the young James Farmer is the late breaking hero and his final speech beautifully weaves together a convincing concluding argument to the story line. Indeed, only Farmer could have given that speech – even though he didn’t discover Ghandi until he was a graduate student at Howard.

To be fair to the filmmakers, the movie is broadly advertised as “inspired by a true story.” This is double speak at its finest, but it does give us some warning that considerable creative license was exercised in crafting the final product. Nevertheless, the power of film to permanently etch historical narratives in public memory is considerable. This is why I am simultaneously elated and deeply troubled by the film. For a person who never seemed to be in the right place at the right time – for example, he missed the March on Washington because he was in jail in Plaquemine, Louisiana - I am so pleased that Hollywood put James Farmer front and center in this film – especially in the movie’s climactic debate. Furthermore, as someone whose life has been dedicated to debate, I could not be more pleased to have the argument of the film be that a debate education sowed the seeds of the civil rights movement. Indeed, a debate education was a formative intellectual force for so many of the movement’s leaders. Although, the telling of that story will have to wait for a future occasion, it is my firm belief that this is “a true story.”

Yet, and here’s where I have great difficulty with the film. In an effort to invest their story with a patina of historical significance and a large dose of narrative fidelity, the film makers knowingly strip Farmer of perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Just before the credits, when the “what happened to them” script rolls, the Freedom Rides are struck from Farmer’s legacy and instead linked to the fictional character of Samantha Booke – who the film makers say was embarking on the Freedom Rides on the very day that J. Leonard Farmer Senior– Farmer’s father and the character played by Forrest Whitaker, died. The connection with the elder Farmer’s death is indeed correct - James Farmer Jr – our James Farmer - was forced to leave the Ride to attend his father’s funeral.

When President Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor in 1997, he said: “Farmer has never sought the limelight, and until today, I frankly think he's never gotten the credit he deserves.” That Hollywood would reinscribe this trajectory in a movie that seems to want to celebrate his life is puzzling and unsettling at best.

1 This review is a revised excerpt from the Great Lives lecture on James L. Farmer Jr., delivered at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA on February 19, 2008. For more details, see:

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