By Jamie Kang
This blog post is the first in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes.
- Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research.
- This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
- For this first of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “The Great Debaters,” a true story centering around the debate team from Wiley, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Texas.
For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:
- This film has a mainly Black cast, do you think that contributes to the less stereotyped depictions of the characters?
- Why do you think the filmmakers chose to make this film (set in 1930) in 2007? What aspects of the film are still relevant today?
The Great Debaters
For this blog, I watched the 2007 film “The Great Debaters”. The movie, based on a true story, centers around the debate team from Wiley, a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Texas. Led by their debate coach Melvin Tolson, the team begins to gain traction after they beat other Black colleges in the area and go on to have an undefeated season. Their goal is to debate teams from white colleges, and they eventually advance enough to beat the reigning champions at Harvard, winning the national debate championships. In the movie, the team contains four students, but one member drops out part way through the season due to Mr. Tolson’s involvement and leadership in the rebellion of sharecroppers, which led to him being targeted by the police.
In this blog, I will mainly focus on two characters: the team alternate James Farmer and his father who is a professor at Wiley. At just 14, James is the youngest member of the team; mainly a researcher, not succeeding in actual debates until the end of the film. His father, Mr. Farmer becomes central to the story when he bails Mr. Tolson out of jail during his unjust arrest. Through their relationship, the film examines the racial socialization process. It also touches on important issues facing America during the 1930s, such as the deep racism in the Jim Crow South, lynchings, unionization of sharecroppers and workers. The movie centers around themes of civil disobedience, often spouting the famous quote “an unjust law is no law at all” which is still relevant today.
I loved the film, especially as the questions surrounding the morality of civil disobedience as a weapon in the fight for justice feel very salient in today’s times. In the film, Mr. Tulson was risking his safety, career, and even his life to help the sharecroppers organize and fight for their rights. He received criticism that he was too radical and still involved himself in a fight that wasn’t his own. When faced with these judgements he responded “A hungry negro steals a chicken, he goes to jail. A rich businessman steals bonds and goes to congress. I think that’s wrong, now if that makes me a radical, a socialist, a communist then so be it” (Washington, 2007). In today’s world, we are still fighting some of the same injustices that existed in the 1930s. Jim Crow laws may have been abolished, but they never fully went away.
Racism and injustice are embedded in our housing and education systems, our policing, prisons, and more. Moreover, when people take a stand against these or other injustices they are sometimes labeled as radicals, socialist, and/or communists much like Mr. Tulson was in the film.
The film’s final debate on civil disobedience feels incredibly relevant in the wake of the nationwide protests in 2020 as part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. During the debate, one of the Harvard students tells a story about his dad, a police officer whose partner was killed in the line of duty. He comments “nothing that erodes the law can be moral, no matter what name we give it”. In his response, James explains “there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South. An unjust law is no law at all. Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience” (Washington, 2007). There is so much power and truth in his final arguments, especially in the context of today. I would echo his sentiment that it is our duty to take a stand against these injustices.
Civil disobedience and even violent protests are not any less moral than the way in which our system is currently structured.
According to Psychology professor A. Wade Boykin and writer F.D Toms, many Black people in America face a “Triple Quandary.” They explain that, “the Black experience in America is distinguished by the fact that qualities attributed to Blackness are in opposition to the qualities that are rewarded in society,” (Boykin & Toms, 1985). This is some of what James referenced in his argument. These examples help demonstrate how prevalent the themes of the film are in our contemporary society.
Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.
Author Bio: Jamie Kang is a third year student at the University of Virginia from Arlington Virginia. She is studying Psychology and Youth and Social Innovation, but has varying interests including media and politics, and she enjoys working with children.