Debating All the Way to the Big Screen

New film's uplifting message -- plus star power from Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey -- has a small college in Texas hoping for a revival.
December 21, 2007

It isn't every day that a financially struggling institution finds itself the subject of a much-hyped movie. The resulting buzz about the small college has already led to an initial outpouring of pledges from donors, many of whom had never heard of it before -- and the movie won't even come out until Christmas.

Even more unusual is the subject matter: Rather than a by-the-book tale chronicling the rise of an underdog athletic team or Ivy League intrigue, the film examines a true story about a college debate team that overcame the rigid prejudices of a white-only league in the 1930s.

The response is encouraging to officials at Wiley College, a historically black institution in Marshall, Texas, about 140 miles east of Dallas. Mindful of black colleges' academic and financial challenges since traditionally white institutions began recruiting minority students, college leaders hope the film, The Great Debaters, will lead to more student interest in debating and an end to the financial woes that have plagued Wiley for years.

In other words, they're asking: Could a $10 movie ticket lead to an even larger donation?

For now, at least, the answer is yes. The film's director and star, Denzel Washington, recently pledged $1 million to restart Wiley's now-defunct debate team. According to Veronica Clark, the college's interim director of public relations, the team hasn't formally been in existence since the departure of coach Melvin Tolson, a poet and English instructor played in the film by Washington. Billionaire Dallas investor Samuel Wyly (no relation), after hearing about the story through a friend who was an alumnus, has also chipped in $100,000 to help revitalize the team.

“It’s been nonstop and ongoing since Denzel started this project. Now that the project is complete, the college has been getting overwhelming support," Clark said. If Tolson and his team initially brought notoriety to the college, the film chronicling that period in its history is again putting "Wiley College on the map."

The latest windfall has extended beyond the college's debate legacy. An endowed chair in Tolson's name is in the works, as is the Melvin B. Tolson Scholarship Fund with $75,000 from Wal-Mart. The company is giving another $25,000 to support five students next semester. That's before taking into account the fact that Oprah Winfrey -- whose name can affect book sales, influence purchasing decisions and even, she's hoping, the next presidential election -- is also attached to the film as a producer.

"With the plight of historically black colleges, especially the private ones, there’s always an ebb and flow of cash," Clark said. "We don’t have the large endowment such as big schools do."

Films pitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds against seemingly insurmountable odds aren't new, of course. The New York Times recently noted that the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, about a teacher who successfully leads his students to pass the AP Calculus exam, brought enough recognition to the real-life Los Angeles high school on which it was based that donations easily poured in after an auditorium fire there earlier this year. But for every Stand and Deliver -- still screened diligently for students at many high schools around AP exam time -- there's a movie like We Are Marshall, whose muted impact last year isn't likely to affect the public perception of Marshall University outside of West Virginia.

In a holiday movie season crowded with smaller-scale offerings, it's hard to gauge whether The Great Debaters will share the same fate once it's released. Still, it will enter the field with significant buzz. It has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best picture in the drama category, and movies featuring academic competitions (think Spellboundand Akeelah and the Bee) have been audience favorites for the past several years.

Sure enough, films revolving around spelling bees may have tapped into a desire for a time when more cerebral calisthenics enjoyed popularity as bona-fide spectator sports. In the 1930s, when Wiley's debate team was taking off, students rallied around the competition as a way to excel in a society that didn't offer them the chance to do so in other arenas.

“Because of this movie and because of the reestablishment of the debate team ... other minorities will want to come to Wiley to see what it’s all about,” Clark said.

In the film, Tolson coaches his team to near perfection, culminating in a final showdown with Harvard. (In real life, it was the University of Southern California, which Wiley's team beat in 1935.) But Tolson is also portrayed as a somewhat unpredictable character whose clandestine activities organizing local sharecroppers threatened to jeopardize his team -- a group that included future civil rights leader James L. Farmer Jr.

But no story about debaters could be complete without a debate of its own. The film accurately depicts Tolson's coaching method, in which he insisted on writing each of the team's arguments himself.

"According to James Farmer, Tolson's drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers," says Wiley's official Web site. "Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them -- before the actual debate."

Bloggers have picked up on the tactics, also questioning Tolson's opinion of conservatives (he was an avowed radical): "If a man isn’t a liberal or a radical, he is a joke or a foggy among intelligent Folk." The film doesn't shy away from this point, weaving Tolson's organizing activities and politics into the storyline.

"Policy debaters today buy books with entire arguments, counter arguments, rebuttals, etc., etc., etc., all laid out," wrote a commenter at the Volokh Conspiracy blog. "The debate coach doing the scripting is probably a big step UP, because it helps him tailor the arguments to the team and its strengths instead of reading out of a book. A judge once commented that debate has come to the point where affirmative says 'our argument is at tabs 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9' and negative says 'our response is at tabs 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10.' [C]oaches scripting arguments is nothing in comparison."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top