Monday, December 31, 2007

Movie review: The Great Debaters

I saw The Great Debaters on Christmas day, and I urge everyone to see it. It lives up to its hype, but it is even more than that. The advertising makes it sound like a fairly typical rooting- for-the-underdog-as-they-win story... in this case, the debaters of a small black southern college, Wiley, going up against debaters at Harvard University in 1935. It is based upon a true story, and it is amazing that it happened between those schools at that date at all (I've just read the New York Times review of the movie, which says the actual debate was at the University of Southern California, not Harvard). Even more amazing, one of the two debaters for Wiley was a woman and the other was 14 years old. Even more wonderful, it was carried on radio for all the country to hear.

Yes, that's the story, and yes, one cheers every step of the way. But it is so much more than that. The advertising doesn't hint at the gritty realities of the movie, which show, sometimes graphically, how dangerous it was to be Southern and black at that time. The scenes of danger are also played out in the topics of the debates, which get to the heart of the matter.

This is a movie that both black and white need to see. Even today, so many whites are ignorant of, or refuse to face, the difficulties of being African-American today, much less during the heyday of Jim Crow. Blacks maybe need to be reminded that things have improved, and that there are many black heroes to emulate. Hopefully that will inspire Americans of all races to to finally overcome the damned curse of racism that has killed and oppressed so many.

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