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THE GREAT DEBATERS

'The Great Debaters'
In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, Wiley College had a debate team that beat many universities. This movie is inspired by their wins and the fact that Melvin B. Tolson and James Farmer Sr. nurtured the team, most notably James Farmer, Jr., a gifted student who was enrolled at Wiley when he was fourteen, to be all they could be at a time when the nation was suffering on so many fronts. 

In an interview with screenwriter Robert Eisele, Tolson's eldest son, Melvin Jr., remembered eavesdropping on one of his father's late night practices in their living room. "They would start off as kind of friendly, informal discussions about the debate topics, with lots of good humor. But they would practice for hours and suddenly it was for real. Dad would prod the debaters until it was a genuine debate. It was like an intellectual fistfight.”

"It is important for all of us to remember our own influence and power. To learn that words are weapons is an invaluable lesson,” notes Producer Forte. "We all have the ability to improve. To emphasize the importance of education, self-motivation, self-reliance is a timeless, useful, universal lesson.”

Producer Black professes, "The reason I responded to this story is that it's different. It's educational without beating you over the head. It tells a really great story—almost like a sports movie. You're rooting for the people. There's a dedicated teacher involved. It takes the idea of a classic sports movie and turns it on its ear.”

Director Washington considers, "The way I helped shape the story was how it relates to this young boy, James Farmer Jr., and what he sees about his father and what he sees in Melvin B. Tolson.”

Kimberly Elise suggests, "I see in this film a great story about education. We don't own our children; we're here to nurture and help shape them. Then, we have to release them and let them blossom and be all that they can be so that they can set the world, you know, aglow with their own thing.”

Forest Whitaker, deemed one of the best actors of his generation, ponders, "I think the movie operates on the theme of tolerance- allowing people to be fully who they are, giving them the dignity and respect of who and what they are.” Yet Whitaker zeroes in on James Farmer Jr., played by Denzel Whitaker. 

The older Whitaker offers, "It's about a winning debate team, but ultimately, it's about this character,, his rights of passage, him becoming a man and moving into manhood. He slowly goes on this journey that allows him in the end to win and become who he fully is, an actualized person.”

Denzel Whitaker discloses, "I've heard very little about James Farmer Jr. in my history books at school. It wasn't until I did this movie that I got an understanding of his importance in the Civil Rights Movement.” He proclaims, "It's one of those great stories that needs to be told!”

Washington demurs, "I don't like to answer questions about what audiences can expect from my movie, but I know there are some brilliant performances by these actors.”

He considers, "But the bottom line, the common denominator, was that there were these great educators at these historically Black Colleges and they put the children first.” 

"Remember, there was no television then. Debating was so popular, you could charge admission and get a full house. At Wiley, when you had debates, whatever team was coming, it was a prize occasion. People piled in,” Tolson Jr. recalls.

"It sounds trite—but the film does have timeless and universal themes. It is a war of words. No matter the obstacles, we can achieve. Denzel's character says something along the lines, ‘the world is not going to welcome you with open arms.' This is a fact. It is an understatement. So, it is incumbent on us to be smart, resilient, curious, hungry fo

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