The Great Debaters


I watched the film "The Great Debaters" yesterday. Lovely film. It tells the story of the Melvin B. Tolson and his debate team at Wiley College. The team is best known for debating the national champion Harvard debate team. I won’t give any spoilers, in case you do not know the entire history.

After watching the film, I did a bit of research and found that this "drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson" had a lot less "true" than story.

Wiley college did have a debate team. It was run by Melvin B. Tolson. James Farmer Jr, who later became a famous civil rights activist, was on the team. And, they did beat a major white college debate team, although there is no evidence that it was Harvard. They also were threatened with lynching at one point in time. Beyond that, the majority of the story takes the years 1923 – 1939 and smashes events from different years into a one year debate journey to beat Harvard, the national debate champions.

The first problem is there is no historical evidence that Wiley ever beat Harvard. They did beat numerous "black colleges" of the time and were so good at debating that they were finding hard to find "black colleges" to debate. The big debate of 1935 was a debate with the University of South California (USC) debate team, who were the national champion. Wiley did not win the national trophy, however, as "black debate teams" were not recognized until after World War II. Also, Farmer was not placed in the debate that night; he was an observer.  And Hamilton Boswell, who, as Hamilton Burgess in the film, quits the team over Tolson’s "extracurricular activities", was a high school graduate in the audience that night, not a former member of the team.

As for Samantha Booke, she never existed. She is modeled after Henrietta Bell Wells, who was the first female debater on the team. She died on Feburary 27, 2008 in Baytown, Texas at the age of 96. Wells was on the 1930 debate team, so she never had the opportunity to debate USC or stand opposite Farmer in a debate.

Henry Lowe is a composite character, but seems to fit the character of Henry Heights, who apparently did have a problem with drinking and womanizing. It is extremely unlikely he was ever romantically involved with Bell (Booke). He was the anchor man on the night they beat USC. Furthermore, Henry Heights did not become a minister; that was Hamilton Boswell.

While Tolson did have "leftist" leanings, there is no evidence he was arrested for trying to start a sharecroppers union. The evidence also points to the fact that "black colleges", not "white colleges", did not want to debate Wiley, as they were too good; there is no evidence of blacklisting from "white colleges" due to an arrest. This also means that Tolson would not have been on parole while his team debated Harvard, er, USC (in fact, he was there with his team and told them to stay in their dorm rooms so they would not be intimidated by the size of the USC speech department).

The lynching described in the film did happen, just not as shown. They were warned of a lynching in progress in Carthage. Initially, they decided to skirt the town, but eventually went in with Boswell driving (his skin color was lighter). The rest of the team, including Tolson, stayed down and never encountered the mob as portrayed in the film. We should also note that it is unlikely that Tolson recited the story of Willie Lynch as there is no evidence that a Willie Lynch letter ever existed prior to its mention by Farrakhan in the Million Man March, nor is there any evidence the act was named after a slave owner. It is pure fantasy.

The term lynching comes from Charles Lynch, a Virginia Justice of the Peace. Lynch’s law was instituted around thetime of the American Revolution and was designed to punish Tories, or colonists loyal to the British Crown. This does not deny that lynching was, in fact, used on African Americans in the south, just that the story is designed more for its emotional appeal than its truthfulness.

What about my feelings about the film? On an emotional level, the film is very satisfying. It tells a good story and gives some perspectives on the realities of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. It is sad seeing how people were treated simply because of the melanin content of their skin.

At times, I feel the film is a bit too preachy. There are numerous modern allusions in the film and they are not well blended into the characters (or character, as it is primarily Tolson who preaches). At times I was jarred out of the alternative reality that film presents by moments that sounded like modern day political drivel.

The sad thing is the debate team story is a great story without altering it. If the producers would have stuck to the facts, they would have still ended up with a great movie. This point is mentioned in Eleanor Boswell-Raines article ‘The Great Debaters: Why Wasn’t History Good Enough?‘.

Peace and Grace,
Greg

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10 Responses to The Great Debaters

  1. Kevin says:

    Great review and research. I left you a message. Kevin

  2. Terry says:

    Greg,
     
    Great review and very informative. I saw the movie and enjoyed it … but knowing the whole story is better than the fiction.

  3. Gregory says:

    Yes, I agree. The story, as fact, is very compelling. I am not sure why Hollywood always feels the need to fictionalize it to ramp it up a notch. I guess they can’t help themselves?
     
    Peace and Grace,Greg

  4. Mel says:

    Hey everyone my response may be late. However, if you watch behind the scenes of the film everything that you need to know about the film and the inspiration of it will be explained. Research was done that’s why the producers and screenwriters made the decision to get in touch with the actual individuals.

  5. Priscilla says:

    Also keep in mind, some family members of the actual students did not give permission to use their ancestors in the movie. It is always best to change names rather than face a lawsuit for not receiving permission.

  6. kamelah says:

    Who are you and why does your research matter? I mean do you really think black men being arrested and lynched in the south was actually DOCUMENTED back then? Seriously, time names and places dont matter Mepcin Tolson was and is who he portryed in the movie so the othwr characters and events are irrelevant. Instead of posting criticism why not embrace the movie as positive and encouraging? People always have to bring up the negative

    • Why are you upset over this? As for me, I think time, names and places do matter when you stamp “based on a true story” on the movie. I realize that is not Hollywood’s method, as “based on a true story” means at least one part out of a million is true (names or times or places). The beauty here is this would be a good story without all of the bullshit added in. And yet, you would like me to sit and be completely positive and say “wow, I know it is bullshit, but it is good bullshit”? I don’t join the koolaid drinking crowd. Sorry!

      • Lee says:

        It’s kind of like why do white folk have to always portray themselves as Egyptians rather than showing the true colored African men and women. Right?

      • Lee: If you are suggesting I see this as a white versus black thing, you are incorrect. I would agree with you on cultures in films, however. Christian Bale is hardly the right ethnicity to play Moses (in fact, Ben Kingsley comes the closest of all of the actors in appearing even slightly Egyptian). Aloha took this even farther casting Emma Stone to play a half-Chinese, half-Hawaiin woman.

        My bigger issue is when something is “based on a true story” and very little of it is true. The Great Debaters is not the worst here, but I do find the true story to be very compelling, so I did not see the need for embellishment. The worst I can think of it is “A Dolphin Tale”. It is true there is a dolphin named Winter. It is true Winter is at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The rest is pure fiction. I don’t understand how you can base something on a true story when over 90% of the facts are made up. Then again, any story that takes place on earth could, technically, be said to be ‘based on a true story’, as there are humans on earth.

  7. Janet Johnson says:

    I’m just glad the story was told. It is inspiring and got me interested in finding out about the real people who were involved. Therefore I am grateful that the descendants of the characters portrayed have come forward to share the real historical facts. On the other hand, I do not think that all movies based on true stories are going to be 100% accurate because of poetic license. I watched it with my high school aged granddaughter and she was able to have a much deeper appreciation for what her great grandparents endured as well as understand that the spirit of excellence that the debaters had seems to be what is missing today. This movie reminds us of why we all should love and financially support our Historically Black Colleges. They have nurtured, and developed our children. This movie though the historical facts and characters were not complelely accurately depicted is still very worth while.

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