Black History Film Series – The Great Debaters
Based on a true story, the plot revolves around the efforts of debate coach Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) at Wiley College, a historically black college related to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (now The United Methodist Church), to place his team on equal footing with whites in the American South during the 1930s, when Jim Crow laws were common and lynch mobs were a fear for blacks. The fictional Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University (real life, Stanford University).
Bring your family and friends to Black History Movies under the stars. Movies begin at dusk on the banks of the San Antonio River at the beautiful Arneson River Theater. Stay after each film for discussion and Q & A. Unique food truck offerings will be available at each showing.
The movie explores social constructs in Texas during the Great Depression, from day-to-day insults African Americans endured to lynching. Also depicted is James L. Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who, at 14 years old, was on Wiley’s debate team after completing high school (and who later went on to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality). Another character on the team, Samantha Booke, is based on the real individual Henrietta Bell Wells, acclaimed poet and the only female member of the 1930 Wiley team who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the US.
The key line of dialogue, used several times, is a famous paraphrase of theologian St. Augustine of Hippo: “An unjust law is no law at all.” Another major line, repeated in slightly different versions according to context, concerns doing what you “have to do” in order that we “can do” what we “want to do.” In all instances, these vital lines are spoken by the James L. Farmer Sr. and James L. Farmer,