This movie is one that hits close to home, considering the fact that my interest in philosophy, argumentation, and persuasion came about through my introduction to debate. The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, tells the underdog story of how Wiley College, a historically black college, attempted to compete with the white-male dominated institution of Harvard University in a speech and debate competition. The timeframe? The 1930s, during the height of the Jim Crow Era. This was no easy task. Not only were the debaters already disadvantaged due to their lack of resources, but anti-black racism was so pervasive that the concept of an articulate and educated non-white individuals was obsolete. So how did they pull it off?
After intense practice, struggle, and overcoming hardships, Wiley College pulled off the dramatic upset of defeating Harvard University (in reality it was the University of Southern California) in a debate over divisive political issues that still remain pertinent to this day.
However, the value behind the Great Debaters isn’t the fact that Wiley College won the national championship. It’s the messages and theme communicated throughout the movie that makes this critical in understanding black philosophy and how theories have evolved over time. Phrases such as “an unjust law is no law at all” become repeated in several key lines of dialogue, which would later become the cornerstone of Dr. MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Additionally, the brutal scenes of lynching and vulgar language help to showcase at least some of the terrors of the 1900s that African Americans continued to face.
Finally, the idea of philosophy and theory becoming a material means of combating violence was also suggested within the movie:
“Debate is blood sport. It’s combat. But your weapons are words.”
This exemplifies how the words and ideas that we propagate have detrimental effects not only in how we perceive the world but the methods we use to resolve the ongoing challenges of the status quo. I encourage you all to check out the Great Debaters to aid the development of your voice so that you can realize your full potential in philosophy and persuasion!
Check out some of my favorite clips from the movie below!