BHM Movie Recommendation – ‘The Great Debaters’

Our third daily recommendation for Black History Month is the cinematic adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple.”

By Chuck Walton

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In celebration of Black History Month, we’re making daily movie recommendations, presented in chronological order of the films’ stories.

Stay tuned to Noovie every day as we highlight an original, landmark film worth revisiting or discovering for the first time.

February 4 – The Great Debaters (1935)

The Film

Actor/filmmaker Denzel Washington’s second directorial feature, released on Christmas Day 2007, is based on an article about the 1930s Wiley College debate team. The African American group based in Marshall, Texas, defeated the reigning white college debate teams of the era, despite not being able to be truly recognized as full members of the debate society until after World War II.

The cast includes Denzel as the team’s instructor, English professor Melvin Tolson, whose intelligence, local activism and pedigree make him a target to the threatened white community of the day who brand him a radical. Also supporting the debaters is Forest Whitaker as preacher James Farmer Sr. Actor Denzel Whitaker (no relation to the elder Denzel or Whitaker) plays debater James Farmer Jr., while Jurnee Smollett is the team’s lone female debater. Click here to Watch the Trailer or watch it below.

©MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

The Story

Set in 1935 in the Jim Crow era south, this one-of-a-kind sports drama recounts the true journey of the Wiley College debaters as they and their singular teacher overcome the dangerous racism of the time. The auditions to make the team are tough, and the attitudes they face on their way to the top are even tougher.

At one point, travelling to a match, the team happens upon a lynch mob who’ve just hung and burned a black man to death. The team barely escapes with their lives. It’s an all-too-common, evil reality in America's history which this group of young people strives to overcome by rising as involved, educated, passionate and engaged leaders. By the end of the film, the team is victorious in more ways than one.

The movie has the debaters prevailing over the number one team from Harvard. In real life, they defeated the top-ranked team from USC. Still, the message is clear. These great debaters are the real American victors, regardless of the competition.

©MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

The Legacy

Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama, “The Great Debaters” went on to win 6 NAACP Image Awards: Outstanding Motion Picture, Outstanding Actor (Denzel Washington), Outstanding Actress (Jurnee Smollett), and Outstanding Supporting Actor awards for Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker.

Where to Watch

Catch the film now on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and YouTube

The Great Debaters

Drama / 2007 / PG-13

Poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) teaches at the predominately black Wiley College in 1935 Texas. He decides to start a debate team, something nearly unheard of at a black college. While at first he butts heads with the influential father (Forest Whitaker) of one of his best debators, eventually he is able to form a team of strong-minded, intelligent young students, and they become the first black debate team to challenge Harvard's prestigious debate champions.

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