|'The Great Debaters' movie spotlights black colleges|
Denzel Washington stars in "The Great Debaters," a movie
about the success of the 1935 debate team at United Methodist-related
A UMNS photo by David Lee, The Weinstein Co.
By Fran Coode Walsh*
December 21, 2007 | LOS ANGELES (UMNS)
On the 14th floor of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Denzel
Washington sits back in an armchair surrounded by lights and cameras and
promotes his latest film project, while also putting in a word for
historically black colleges.
Professor Melvin B. Tolson (center) led the 1935 team to national prominence. A UMNS photo courtesy
of Wiley College.
"The Great Debaters," opening Dec. 25 in U.S. theaters, is a
fictionalized account of the remarkably successful 1935 debate team at
Wiley College, a small United Methodist-related, historically black
school in Marshall, Texas. The film is nominated for a Golden Globe
Award for best motion picture drama.
The story focuses on four young debaters and their mentor, Melvin
Tolson, who taught at Wiley and coached the champion debate team.
Washington directed the film and also stars as Tolson, a poet and
Despite his hectic schedule of interviews for the film, Washington looks
relaxed and rested as he talks about the significance of black colleges
for African Americans in the early 20th century.
"It was the first time they got an opportunity to get a college
education," the actor says in an interview with United Methodist News
"I think these professors and the founding fathers of these schools
understood that importance. They knew that it gave these young people
more options. … We were in the middle of the Depression, so your options
were education, or sharecropping or unemployment."
Visionaries for a freed people
The first historically black college west of the Mississippi River,
Wiley was founded in 1873 to prepare newly emancipated people for the
Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Films produced the movie, calls both the church school and Tolson visionaries.
"Here is this little college ... in the rural South in the 1930s, where
you had to be there to even begin to understand what it was like to be a
person of color, in a land that thought you were invisible and thought
that your work really didn't matter," Winfrey says in a videotaped
promotional message to media outlets.
"And here was this little college with a professor who understood beyond
the place and beyond the time how powerful a mind and minds combined
together could be. And he created this debate team, and ... believed
that the color of your skin wasn't what was significant, but what was
really the content of your mind and your character and your beliefs."
Haywood L. Strickland is president of the school today. A UMNS photo
by John Gordon.
Young actors Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker play Wiley
students who, in a fictionalized account, go on to defeat Harvard
University's debate team in the film's climax. In reality, the 1935
Wiley team, the first African-American school to debate on a "white"
college campus, bested the University of Southern California for an
unexpected victory. Filmmakers opted to use Harvard because they felt
the school was more symbolic of an educational bastion.
Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker also stars in the movie and plays Tolson's contemporary, scholar James Farmer Sr.
In a separate interview with UMNS, Whitaker, who was actually born near
Wiley College, says he hopes the movie helps viewers to appreciate the
relevance of historically black colleges. "Unfortunately when you go to
(public schools) ... a lot of the accomplishments of people of color ...
aren't really shown," he says.
He also urges young people to consider attending historically black
schools. "It's not to isolate ourselves. It's just an opportunity for
youth to embrace your heritage and your ancestry and feel your power so
that you can be a part of this world in a strong way."
Wiley is one of 11 historically black, United Methodist-related
institutions of higher education and is financially supported by the
denomination's Black College Fund.
Wiley president Haywood L. Strickland says the 930-student school has
nearly doubled its enrollment since 2000. The administrator is grateful
the movie is bringing attention to the unique contributions of schools
such as Wiley.
Fans in Marshall, Texas, line the red carpet at the film's premiere for Wiley College. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.
"They’re just as important today as they were 50 years ago," says
Strickland. "There’s still a need in this country for an alternative
education to public education. There’s still a need for a small college
which offers a nurturing, caring, close relationship with the students.
There’s still a reason for a professor … to be able to say to that
student, 'You can be the very best that you want to be,' and ensure that
that student gets that grounding, foundation, to spur that student
toward that achievement."
The movie premiered in Marshall on Dec. 13 to a packed and appreciative
audience. Before the debut, the cast attended a news conference on the
Wiley campus. "It's great for us to come and show you this film because
we're doing it for you," Smollett said. "The movie's bigger than all of
Washington spoke of his visits to the area over the past few years to do
research. "This one is close to my heart," he told reporters. "I'm
pleased for these young people and the people that came before us that
we celebrate with this film."
Washington mentioned he would meet with Strickland to discuss how he
could "help the school and try to get the debate team back on its feet."
Four days later, Wiley announced that the star will donate $1 million
to the school's recently resurrected debate program.
"We hope this kind of story will develop new friends, new
possibilities," says Strickland, "… and that they’ll be able to see we
are major contributors to our society and indeed to the world; that
these colleges––the Wileys of the world––are strong, are good, are
viable, are important and ... that they will invest in us because I
believe that the returns from that investment are immeasurable."
Strickland hopes Wiley's good fortune also will ripple to benefit other
church-related, historically black schools. "These are critical times,
not only in our nation but in the world, and it calls for a different
kind of leadership and I believe ... that all of the historic black
colleges within our church provide the same kind of undergirding and
*Walsh is supervising producer of UMTV, a unit of United Methodist
Communications based in Nashville, Tenn. John Gordon contributed to this
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great Debate On Black Colleges
Video interview with haywood strickland, president of wiley college
"This movie…highlights the importance of historical black colleges."
"A church-related college ought to offer a different kind of experience than a public institution."
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