'The Great Debaters': the enduring argument for meritocracy over minority appeasement

Claudine Gay’s inexcusable rise and overdue fall from grace proves one thing. What a far cry many entitled, nepotistic, mediocre, self-righteous but celebrated black leaders of today are from more introspective, self-aware, meritocratic black leaders of yesterday. In 2007, when Gay was made Harvard’s professor of African American studies, within months of joining its faculty, Denzel Washington’s film The Great Debaters became the first film since 1979 allowed to shoot at Harvard

Based on the real-life exploits of the pioneering 1930s Wiley College debating team, the film is a timely reminder of how this latter breed of black leaders became so inspirational: they asked the right questions of others, but more importantly, of themselves. For instance, is equality for minorities about mediocrity trouncing opponents in a dolled-up space of equal outcomes, at the expense of honest work and excellence? Or is it about providing minorities equal opportunities to earn that space, by shunning mediocrity in the first place?

Debate coach Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) mobilises a team comprising the trio of Henry (Nate Parker), Samantha (Jurnee Smollett) and Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Precocious Farmer Jr. is the son of Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), an austere theologian-minister. Feisty Samantha is based on the real-life Henrietta Bell Wells, the first woman on the team. And Henry is their suffocatingly erudite but reckless team leader.

Life lessons

Starting out, Tolson’s trio pulls in different directions, each individual publicly asserting their individuality while privately longing for acceptability. As they tour rival colleges, Tolson shows them that debating is a blood sport. It’s combat. But it’s their words that are weapons. Only mid-tour do they suspect that he’s been teaching them a little more than debating, showing them the transformative power of their inner voice.

Against a backdrop of that era’s racism, the youthful trio learn from contrasting styles of leadership of the two senior men.

Tolson’s confrontational, as if spoiling for a fight. He urges them to mimic the mythic Greek giant Antaeus, to rise stronger each time they’re flung to the ground in “defeat”.

Farmer Sr. won’t shy from confrontation if that’s what it takes, but he’s not out looking to get people’s backs up.

Both are fearless, but idolise an assertion of personhood, not a parade of “personality”. They celebrate excellence, not swag or, worse, swagger.

Combative, Tolson pits his novices against veterans. His point? If you’re denied opportunities to compete fairly, fight harder, better, smarter to be seen, to be heard, to be understood. Except, his idea of fighting is intellectual, not presentational, and certainly not representational. It’s why his side hustle off-campus mobilises hardworking, largely illiterate sharecroppers, black and white, against wealthy landlords. To use a diving metaphor, he helps them dive longer, deeper, farther by strengthening their technique, not by moving them to the kiddies' pool.

Seeking justice

Likewise, Farmer Sr. urges his congregation not to wallow in victimhood, but to take responsibility for themselves, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away all childish things.'' He also recalls what St Augustine had once reasoned, and St Aquinas had once refined: an unjust law is no law at all. 

Farmer’s point? Man-made laws are imperfect, because man is imperfect. Don’t blindly bow to what’s lawful or right or correct, if it isn’t also good. Instead, he extols a sense of vocation. Professors and preachers are privileged because they have the most important job: educating young people. Sure, elders must enlighten youth about their dignity, and the rights that flow from it. But reminding them of their duties is no less sacred. That includes accepting that the enemy isn’t always “the other”.


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Both men drive change that sweeps the south. The (then unprecedented) interracial college debates here are a cinematic symbol of that change. Both men teach that civil disobedience, or for that matter, any fight for equality, isn’t a blunt instrument. It isn’t a wagging finger or a clenched fist flying in every direction but its own. Instead, it’s a living, breathing thing. It thrives on an imaginative mix of immersion (say, in years of meditative reading, writing or reflection) and revolution (say, in questioning, answering, or debating). 

Revolution may be a rush for freedom, all right. But, they ask: Freedom from what? Farmer Sr. clarifies. It must be freedom from ignorance and poverty, from drunkenness and darkness, and from violence. He thunders mid-sermon, “Education is the only way out!”

But here’s the thing. Tolson and Farmer Sr. earn respect because they distinguish scholarship from real learning, the knowledge of the streetwise from wisdom, and mere success — including a seat at the high table — from achievement. So, Tolson’s calculated gambles pay off. In temperament, sex and age, he backs a dark horse every time, and wins. Mutinous Henry stands firm, while an apparently safer bet in the team buckles. Samantha shines, even as the first and lone woman contestant. And a mere boy, Farmer Jr. bests men nearly twice his age.

Scriptwriter Robert Eisele is saying that black leaders of the 20th century didn’t need to jostle for position, or metaphorical likes or reposts to be heard; they simply were. Hard-won skills of reading, writing and speaking elevated their thoughts. Crucially, notions of responsibilities, not just rights, enlightened their minds and spirits.


Here, Forest Whitaker is towering as Farmer Sr., parting a sea of bigotry with the force of his conviction. Parker is charismatic as Henry, whose mean left hook isn’t his only weapon; he can throw equally punchy prose to hammer home arguments in heated debate. Smollett is radiant as Samantha, her sensible, silken voice slicing the still air of a debating hall like a ribbon of steel. Denzel Whitaker sounds defiant even, perhaps especially, when he whispers. And Washington is electrifying, both before and behind the camera.

Once Tolson, a poet in his own right, strides into his class and onto a table to deliver moving lines from poet Langston Hughes. One camera looks down at his class, another up at him. Tolson forces his students to look up. Not to him or at him, but to what he’s saying, to hear truth from a higher plane: morally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically, if he can help it. So, strapping Henry learns that masculinity isn’t the ability to woo or win over any (or every) woman you lay eyes on, but the clarity and courage to stand by your woman, no matter what. A one-night stand is no stand at all.

At another point, Tolson’s drilling his wards never to feel entitled or to slip on the sly mask of victimhood. And he isn’t looking only at Samantha. Who knows if she wants special treatment, as the lone woman, or not? Never, he implies to all of them, say you won because you belonged to a special group because it’s easier for you to get off the hook by cravenly hiding under special status when you lose. Tolson’s in a tiny boat, adrift on a lake. His team’s on the bank with a bit stuffed between their teeth, shouting answers at his shouted questions. He provokes them to speak louder, clearer, more assertively so he can hear them, even as he drifts farther and farther from the bank.

Tolson: “Who’s the judge?”

Team (in unison): “The judge is God.”

Tolson: “Why is He God?”

Team (in unison): “Because He decides who wins or loses, not my opponent.”

Then, Tolson’s killer lines.

Tolson (now shouting): “Who is your opponent?”

Team (shouting back): “He doesn't exist!”

Tolson (louder): “Why does he not exist?”

Team (louder still): “He's merely a dissenting voice to the truth I speak!”

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society. 

Image credit: 'The Great Debaters'


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