'The Great Debaters' movie spotlights black colleges

January 10, 2008

Denzel Washington stars in “The Great Debaters,” a movie about the success of the 1935 debate team at United Methodist-related Wiley College.

By Fran Coode Walsh*


On the 14th floor of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Denzel Washington sits back in an armchair surrounded by lights and cameras and promotes his latest film project, while also putting in a word for historically black colleges.


“The Great Debaters,” which opened Dec. 25 in U.S. theaters, is a fictionalized account of the remarkably successful 1935 debate team at Wiley College, a small United Methodist-related, historically black school in Marshall, Texas. The film is nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best motion picture drama.


The story focuses on four young debaters and their mentor, Melvin Tolson (center), who taught at Wiley and coached the champion debate team. Washington directed the film and also stars as Tolson, a poet and author.


Despite his hectic schedule of interviews for the film, Washington looks relaxed and rested as he talks about the significance of black colleges for African Americans in the early 20th century.


“It was the first time they got an opportunity to get a college education,” the actor says in an interview with United Methodist News Service.


“I think these professors and the founding fathers of these schools understood that importance. They knew that it gave these young people more options. … We were in the middle of the Depression, so your options were education, or sharecropping or unemployment.”


Visionaries for a freed people

The first historically black college west of the Mississippi River, Wiley was founded in 1873 to prepare newly emancipated people for the future.


Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Films produced the movie, calls both the church school and Tolson “visionaries.”


“Here is this little college ... in the rural South in the 1930s, where you had to be there to even begin to understand what it was like to be a person of color, in a land that thought you were invisible and thought that your work really didn’t matter,” Winfrey says in a videotaped promotional message to media outlets.


“And here was this little college with a professor who understood beyond the place and beyond the time how powerful a mind and minds combined together could be. And he created this debate team, and ... believed that the color of your skin wasn’t what was significant, but what was, was really the content of your mind and your character and your beliefs.”


Young actors Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker play Wiley students who, in a fictionalized account, go on to defeat Harvard University’s debate team in the film’s climax. In reality, the 1935 Wiley team, the first African-American school to debate on a “white” college campus, bested the University of Southern California for an unexpected victory. Filmmakers opted to use Harvard because they felt the school was more symbolic of an educational bastion.


Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker also stars in the movie and plays Tolson’s contemporary, scholar James Farmer Sr.


In a separate interview with UMNS, Whitaker, who was actually born near Wiley College, says he hopes the movie helps viewers to appreciate the relevance of historically black colleges. “Unfortunately when you go to (public schools) ... a lot of the accomplishments of people of color ... aren't really shown,” he says.


He also urges young people to consider attending historically black schools. “It’s not to isolate ourselves. It’s just an opportunity for youth to embrace your heritage and your ancestry and feel your power so that you can be a part of this world in a strong way.”


Fresh exposure

Wiley is one of 11 historically black, United Methodist-related institutions of higher education and is financially supported by the denomination’s Black College Fund.


Wiley president Haywood L. Strickland says the 930-student school has nearly doubled its enrollment since 2000. The administrator is grateful the movie is bringing attention to the unique contributions of schools such as Wiley.


“They’re just as important today as they were 50 years ago,” says Strickland. “There’s still a need in this country for an alternative education to public education. There’s still a need for a small college which offers a nurturing, caring, close relationship with the students. There’s still a reason for a professor … to be able to say to that student, ‘You can be the very best that you want to be,’ and ensure that that student gets that grounding, foundation, to spur that student toward that achievement.”


The movie premiered in Marshall on Dec. 13 to a packed and appreciative audience. Before the debut, the cast attended a news conference on the Wiley campus. “It's great for us to come and show you this film because we're doing it for you,” Smollett said. “The movie’s bigger than all of us.”


Washington spoke of his visits to the area over the past few years to do research. “This one is close to my heart,” he told reporters. “I'm pleased for these young people and the people that came before us that we celebrate with this film.”


Washington mentioned he would meet with Strickland to discuss how he could “help the school and try to get the debate team back on its feet.” Four days later, Wiley announced that the star will donate $1 million to the school’s recently resurrected debate program.


“We hope this kind of story will develop new friends, new possibilities,” says Strickland, “… and that they’ll be able to see we are major contributors to our society and indeed to the world; that these colleges – the Wileys of the world – are strong, are good, are viable, are important and ... that they will invest in us because I believe that the returns from that investment are immeasurable.”


Strickland hopes Wiley’s good fortune also will ripple to benefit other church-related, historically black schools. “These are critical times, not only in our nation but in the world, and it calls for a different kind of leadership and I believe ... that all of the historic black colleges within our church provide the same kind of undergirding and nurturing.”


*Walsh is supervising producer of UMTV, a unit of United Methodist Communications based in Nashville, Tennessee. John Gordon contributed to this report.


UMNS photo of Great Debaters courtesy Wiley College.

UMNS photo of Haywood L. Strickland by John Gordon.