Review Date: 3/24/09
Release Date: 12/25/07
Runtime: 126 min.
Period: 1935, Texas
Costume Designer: Sharen Davis
I bought this soundtrack on iTunes the moment it came out, around Thanksgiving in 2007. It is a fantastic mix of gospel, blues and soul, and I purchased it based on a computer-generated “you might like this” suggestion. Man, that was a good suggestion. It took me another year or more to see the movie, and I wish someone (as smart as the computer) had suggested it to me when it first came out, because it would have been so cool to see this uplifting movie on the big screen. It is truly sad that this movie didn’t get more press – its heart is in the right place, and it is an uplifting, enduring story that feels appropriate for our times.
Set in rural Texas in 1935, the parallel between the Great Depression of that era and our current recession is abundantly clear. The Great Debaters was shot well before we spiraled into our financial quagmire, but it feels oddly prescient in light of our current economy. This is a movie about overcoming obstacles, about fighting to get what you deserve, about equality, about racism, about social justice, and about dignity.
The Great Debaters is an underdog story, the kind of “little train that could”. It centers on the debate team from Wylie College, an all-black institution in the still-segregated South. Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington, who also directed the film) leads the school’s debate team as their instructor, coach, and (sometimes Devil’s advocate). After a rigorous debate team audition sequence, he chooses four students (one of them, a woman, one of them a kid, only fifteen years old) for the team.
The fifteen-year-old kid, James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is travelling in the countryside with his family when his father, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) accidentally hits a pig with the car. Local white farmers come out with guns, and basically extort $25 (a month’s pay) from Farmer for the (inflated) value of the pig. Racist epithets are uttered, and it is an intense, racially charged scene. This is a humiliating reminder of a black man’s position (no matter how erudite or well educated) in the South in the 1930s.
The debate team begins a strenuous debate-team-training boot camp, including exercises reciting phrases and prose while holding potatoes in their mouths. They repeat phrases like “My opponent does not exist; he is merely a dissenting voice to the truth that I am speaking”, and in this way they are indoctrinated into the mindset and gut-set of the Wiley College debate team.
Meanwhile, Professor Tolson has been bending the ears of local farmers and farm workers, helping them to organize into a union. This causes raised eyebrows and not-so-subtle allusions to Tolson’s race and his political leanings among townspeople and local law enforcement.
The debate team starts their season, going head to head against other black colleges. Many of their debates skew toward social and civil rights issues: welfare, unemployment, and so on. Tolson starts writing letters to white colleges, including Harvard, asking them to consider debating the Wiley College team. Meanwhile, love blossoms for two of the debate team members, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), much to the chagrin of fifteen-year-old James Farmer, Jr., who has had his eyes on Samantha from the start.
Local law enforcement has taken an overzealous interest in Professor Tolson’s political activities, and rumors spread in town that he is a Communist. Debate team member Burgess (Jermaine Williams) quits the team, under pressure from his parents at being associated with a Commie. Tolson gets a letter from Oklahoma City University (a white university) that they would like to accept Tolson’s offer for a debate, provided the debate takes place off campus.
The debate is held in a large tent, outdoors. The subject: segregation and integration. It’s a debate about race, about the nature of racism, and it is shocking (to modern ears) to hear the arguments from the “pro” position. In the end, Wiley (arguing the “con” position) wins the debate, and there is a party afterward at James Farmer Sr.’s home to celebrate. Lowe and Samantha slip away during the party, and end up steaming up a shack on the swamp’s edge, Henry Lowe’s house. The next morning, young Farmer arrives to pick up Henry Lowe, and sees Samantha’s shoes on the floor. He does the math, and fumes.
That morning, a bunch of white dudes with guns come to get Tolson – they look like law enforcement, but it might have been cleverly vague-ified for dramatic value. Tolson is thrown in jail (presumably for his union-organizing activities), as protesters converge outside and Farmer Sr. talks to the Sheriff. Tolson is eventually released, and the crowd is assuaged.
Back at the university, Tolson continues to teach. Debates with other universities are being cancelled, due to Tolson’s arrest – seems he’s being censured. The remaining debaters want to press on, to debate other white universities, even Harvard. They leave for a big debate with prestigious Howard University, all four of them in one car, Tolson at the wheel.
Driving at night, they encounter a roadblock. Their car is trapped by an angry white mob. In the distance, they see the reason for the roadblock: a lynching, in progress. This scene is so horrifying and shocking it defies description. The angry crowd goes nuts, realizing that this car is full of black people. The debaters’ car turns tail and burns rubber out of there, fear of death as their gasoline.
The next morning, Samantha sees Henry Lowe being dropped off at the house where they are staying. As he exits the car, he canoodles with a woman at the wheel. It’s clear that he is either still drunk or reaching hangover. Tolson and Lowe get into a fight: “In Texas, they lynch Negroes”, says Tolson. Everyone has been traumatized by the disgusting events of the night before, and everyone comes to realize that they need to be more careful.
The debate with Howard University doesn’t go as well as everyone would have liked. Afterward, Farmer Jr. is dropped off at his home, dejected. Tolson arrives home to find his wife waiting with a letter: Harvard wants to debate the Wiley team.
They prepare and rehearse for the Harvard debate. Samantha ends up slapping Lowe in the face, in retribution for his cheating on her. At the train station, leaving for the debate, there is a marching band and a crowd of people to send them off. Tolson is one of them – as a condition of his arrest, he is not allowed to leave town. He puts Henry Lowe in charge of the debaters, and sends them on their way, with the Sheriff keeping a watchful eye on Tolson from a distance.
The debaters arrive in Boston, and are escorted to their hotel, where they receive $5 in per diem, have a butler assigned to their room, the works. They are soon informed that the topic of the debate will be changed – rumors have circulated that Tolson was writing the debaters’ positions, and Harvard wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The debaters burn the midnight oil and argue like crazy. Lowe sneaks out to go to a piano bar in the seedy side of town. Samantha cries. Later, there is a pep talk.
The big day arrives – people are listening on the radio around the country. Farmer Jr. and Samantha represent Wiley College at the podium. The subject is (and I’m paraphrasing) “Is civil disobedience morally justifiable?” Wiley takes the PRO position, and Harvard takes the CON position. Harvard seems to thump Wiley with the statement: Nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. Farmer Jr. then pounds Harvard by telling the story of the lynching they witnessed on the way to debate Howard University, and how, if that didn’t justify civil disobedience, then nothing could. TRUMP!
At one point, we see Tolson appear in the upper balconies of the debate theater. It is not clear whether this is an actual event, or an apparition, something spiritual. In any case, he is checking in on his students, and he likes what he sees. Wiley wins the debate with Harvard. The end.
The costumes in this film are simply beautiful. Sharen Davis has created tableaux of extraordinary beauty using color and texture. This film has a sepia-toned look to it, like you are watching the pictures out of someone’s ancient scrapbook. The details are marvelous, and the craftsmanship is top-notch.
Tolson wears some really nice three-piece suits and neckties throughout the film, while he is teaching. When he is rallying poor farmers, trying to unionize them, he wears “poor folk” clothing: dirty hat, work shirt, suspenders, work trousers. He even admits, in one scene, that he dresses like that so that the farm workers can more readily relate to him. If he wore a suit, he would be perceived as “other”, and therefore not trusted. Tolson, as a character, is aware of what his clothing says about how people perceive him. Fascinating!!
James Farmer, Sr., a theologian, scholar, author and educator, cuts a slightly different (and more conservative) silhouette in his three-piece suits and bow ties. Forest Whitaker’s body type is quite different from Denzel Washington’s, so the two of them together could never be mistaken, but their professorial vibe is similar. Farmer Sr. is usually seen wearing bowties, as opposed to a regular four-in-hand tie, like Tolson wears.
As for the debaters, Samantha is certainly the most interesting to my eye. The level of detail in recreating her period costumes is exquisite. The fabric choices, the color palette, it’s perfect. Samantha’s costumes go from earth tones in the beginning to white linen once she makes the debate team, to hot pink at the homecoming dance, to stark black and white while debating, to butterfly earrings, cruising the swamp with Lowe, to a garnet sweater, to smart hats and coats while travelling. Her arc is clearly defined and constantly updated vis-à-vis her state of mind. It is really something to watch closely when you see the film.
Henry Lowe’s costumes vary depending on his environment. When we first meet Lowe, he is at a homegrown party where hooch is served. It’s a farm-workers party and he is dressed to fit in. In the university environment, he cleans up considerably, wearing ties, smartly cut suits. After the lynching incident, Lowe goes out on the town in a blood-colored shirt. When he visits the seedy side of Boston, he looks like a different person – his costumes reflect his radical change. It is smart, clever costume work, and serves to inform the audience about the character’s arc!
Young James Farmer Jr. seems to arc the least of the leads – he is a child in the beginning, dressed in a boxy suit and bowtie, and in the end, while he is wiser, he still lives in a child’s body. In the Harvard debate (and some of the debates prior to the Harvard debate) he wears a tuxedo. Debate is formal business, and the associated costumes reflect the seriousness of the undertaking.
The debate costuming is, interestingly enough, starkly black and white. Echoing the positions these debaters take, there is no grey area in the costumes whatsoever. These garments are strictly black and/or white, and it deserves mention as a metaphor for their arguments.
I cannot emphasize enough the beauty of the assembled cast as a whole to create these beautiful tableaux in the film. All of the background characters are lovingly expressed with color, aging, fabric, texture, accessories – crowds assembled at the homegrown hooch party, the train station, the various debates – all of these background players tell the story of the setting, of the political, social and economic climate. It is fantastic work, so please take a close look at the details – it’s just gorgeous.
This is a film that takes its message seriously, and all of the technical credits are first-rate. In fact, the filmmakers’ pedigrees are most impressive: Pulitzer-Prize-winning screenwriter, Academy-Award-nominated costume designer and composer, Academy-Award-winning director, actors, cinematographer and editor. This is a powerhouse combination, and all of the technical elements are beautifully realized.
I am still not quite sure why more people didn’t see this film. It was released in time for awards season 2008, but up against (costume) contenders like Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, Atonement, Across the Universe, The Golden Compass, 3:10 To Yuma, 300, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, perhaps it got lost. Nevertheless, it is beautiful work, and deserving of bountiful praise. It might not be as loud and flashy as its peers in the above-mentioned group, but it is effective, lovely work. I hope you enjoy this film and its timely message.
Stay tuned for more information on this movie from Sharen Davis!