the great debaters

Topics: The Great Debaters, Wiley College, Melvin B. Tolson Pages: 3 (1409 words) Published: October 21, 2014

The Great Debaters offers a fictionalized and limited account of the exploits of the award-winning Wiley College debate team headed by Melvin B. Tolson, an African-American English professor, during the Depression years. Beyond his academic duties, Tolson was an accomplished poet, journalist and social activist. Before this film was produced, very little was generally known about Wiley, a small college with only 400 students, or its debating team. The team had a remarkable record, going 10 straight years without a loss from 1929 to 1939. What’s more, the team’s opponents included much larger black universities, including Fisk, Morehouse, Virginia Union, Lincoln, Wilberforce and Howard. Tolson’s debaters became so well known that they were invited to participate in the first interracial debate ever permitted. The contest, which took place in Oklahoma City in 1930, pitted Wiley College against the University of Oklahoma. Five years later, before an audience of 1,100, Tolson’s team won the national championship in a debate with the reigning champions from the University of Southern California. (In a seemingly unnecessary substitution, the film has a group from Harvard University as the opposing team for this historic event.) Founded in 1873, Wiley College is one of the oldest black colleges west of the Mississippi River. It was established by the Freedman’s Bureau in the period called “Reconstruction” during the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, a time filled with hope among former slaves who yearned for equality, education and justice. This is the second film directed by Denzel Washington, following Antwone Fisher in 2003, a story about a youth embittered by traumas inflicted by the foster care system. While the subject matter of the current film raises important historical questions, its treatment tends to be predictable and clichéd. Washington does an admirable job portraying Professor Tolson. The winner of three Oscars, including one for best...
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