Denzel Washington has only put his hand to directing two movies– the story of Antwon Fisher, and now The Great Debaters. This one differs from the previous effort in that Washington is also playing a very major role in this movie. The ‘Great Debaters’ is based on a true story, but with lots of liberties taken. For example, while it is certainly true that the Methodist College, Wiley College in Marshall Texas did have a debating team that went to the national finals in the 1930s, they did not debate the Harvard Crimson– they debated USC! Furthermore some of the main characters in the film are purely or mostly fictional, including 3 of the Wiley debating team, and this becomes all the more misleading when in the closing credits we hear about their supposed later exploits. Then it would also appear that this was not the first time an all black college had debated a white one, though surely it was one of the first times.

If you want more on the lack of care in researching this film see the review at
by Kam Williams.

Despite all of these missteps, the movie very effectively conveys the central issue the film wants to raise– namely the besetting sin of racism as it plagued, and still plagues our nation at various profound levels. Both Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker (and a young man named Denzel Whitaker…..hmmm, whose son could he be) put in excellent performances in this 2 hour and 3 minute film, which is beautifully shot and certainly is effectively dramatic.

But I must confess to being troubled by the liberties taken with the truth in this film. If one wants to present us with a story that confronts us with the truth about our racist history, isn’t it important to get the story straight whilst doing so? I am less concerned with minor liberties taken, such as adding fictional characters to fill out the drama, but when the central characters themselves are not all representations of real persons, and the closing credits lead us to suppose they are– then what? What happens is the real courageous story of someone like James Farmer Jr. gets short changed, a man who later went on to make a difference in the battle over civil rights.

I personally found this film moving and poignant as an example of historical fiction. It is rated PG 13 as there are some violent scenes (a lynching), and one compromising situation. But basically this film is worth a family with older children viewing it together as a conversation starter about the issue of racism. The acting is first rate and the range of character depicted is helpful and interesting.

When I was driving home after seeing the film with one other person we were reflecting on the remarkable fact that with all the many and diverse immigrations into and immigrants in this country it is in fact amazing that we have not had more battles between various ethnic groups, and more civil wars over such differences as one group or another jockeys for position in our culture. I do not mean in any way to diminish the struggles we have had, what with the atrocities committed against not only native Americans and African Americans over the centuries. But still– is there a more diverse country in the world in terms of ethnic diversity? I don’t think so. And yet we have bonded and banded together reasonably well on the whole.

It is a good thing indeed that we have been dealing with this issue of racism over the course of the last century. But dealing with an issue, and overcoming the problem are two different things. And many of the mechanisms we are using to correct the problem (such as affirmation action hiring) are inadequate to actually address the root of the problem.

For at the end of the day, at the root of the problem is not mere ignorance, but human wickedness, or as we would put it— original sin. Information without human transformation is inadequate to deal with such besetting sins. But correct information is a good start. And this film helps in the consciousness raising.

But what is required is not merely an intellectual awakening, or even a spiritual awakening, but a moral renewal of the heart and soul. A heart warming experience which in no way renews and transforms a person’s conscience and prejudices on various deep ethical issues, may be chicken soup for the soul, but it is not fully what the Bible refers to when it speaks of a person becoming a new creature in Christ. Look for a moment at Romans 12 and see what the renewal of the mind and life amounts to in Paul’s view.

More from Beliefnet and our partners