Based on a true story, the plot revolves around the efforts of debate coach Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) at historically black Wiley College to place his team on equal footing with whites in the American South during the 1930s, when Jim Crow laws were common and lynch mobs were a pervasive fear for blacks. In the movie, the Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University. This was their 47th annual debate team.
The movie also explores the social constructs in Texas during the Great Depression including not only the day-to-day insults and slights African Americans endured, but also a lynching. Also depicted is James L. Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who, at 14 years old, was on Wiley’s debate team after completing high school (and who later went on to co-found C.O.R.E., the Congress of Racial Equality).
According to the Houston Chronicle, another character depicted on the team, Samantha Booke, is based on the real individual Henrietta Bell Wells, the only female member of the 1930 debate team from Wiley College who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States. Wells also happened to be a minor African American poet whose papers are housed at the Library of Congress.
There are two stories here – one is the debate team and the other is life under segregation; both stories are compelling. The acting is uniformly outstanding; Forrest Whitaker and Washington support some lesser-known, but extremely talented young stars. We get to know their characters and care about them as they overcome their various obstacles to become the top Negro college debate team in the country.
The injustices of segregation are vividly and heartbreakingly portrayed; it was quite a sobering look at the legalized cruelty of that time and place. The fact that this is a true story makes it all the more inspiring. Heartily recommended.
Director: Denzel Washington
Year of Release: 2007
Character to watch: Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson.
Journal your answers to the following questions after you watch the movie.
- How does this particular character’s journey compare with yours?
- Did the character develop certain characteristics during the movie that you have or that you would like to have? If so, what are those characteristics?
- What obstacles did this character face? What was his or her biggest challenge?
- What would you have done differently if you had been in the same position as the character?
- Is this character the type of person you would be friends with? Why or why not?