The Great Debaters
March 25, 2008 10 Comments
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,