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'Debaters' movie resonates with United Methodists

Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker star in "The Great Debaters," the story of the 1935 debate team at Wiley College, a small United Methodist-related school in Marshall, Texas.
Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker star in
"The Great Debaters," the story of the 1935 debate team at Wiley College, a small
United Methodist-related school in Marshall, Texas.
A UMNS photo by David Lee, The Weinstein Co.

By Susan Passi-Klaus*
December 21, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) 

There was no hushing or shushing when a United Methodist theater audience reacted exuberantly to "The Great Debaters," a sermon on film told Hollywood-style.

Trading pews for theater recliners, a specially invited audience of 275 members from Nashville area United Methodist churches watched a sneak preview Dec. 20 of the movie starring and directed by Denzel Washington and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey.

Opening Dec. 25 in theaters across the United States, "The Great Debaters" is inspired by the true story of the 1935 debate team at Wiley College, a historically black, United Methodist-related school in Marshall Texas.

"It reminds us of the rich gifts, God-given intelligence and great strength we have as African-American people of faith." – The Rev. Renee Franklin

At the Nashville preview, the theater took on the atmosphere of an African-American worship service as an ethnically diverse crowd watched the inspiring story of four black students shaped into a championship debate team in the Jim Crow South. The audience was animated and engaged in the story, offering their own acclamations of approval and encouragement as Washington's character used the power of words to nurture his underdog students.

"This movie is phenomenal,” said the Rev. Renee Franklin, pastor of Key-Stewart United Methodist Church in Gallatin, Tenn., after viewing the film. "It reminds us of the rich gifts, God-given intelligence and great strength we have as African-American people of faith."

Other private United Methodist screenings were held during the week in Houston and Atlanta, and a Dec. 13 premiere was held in Marshall in honor of Wiley College.

The Rev. James H. Salley called the film "one of the most invigorating movies I've ever seen."

"It was more than I actually dreamed of. I think it should be mandatory for young people to see this movie," said Salley, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement at Africa University, a United Methodist school in Zimbabwe.

Jack Tenzel, a member of Blakemore United Methodist Church, said the movie was a "beautiful story" that was well told. "I think it should appeal to everyone, no matter what race, color or creed," he said.

Message of hope

Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a brilliant but volatile professor and poet who transforms the four students into an elite debate team. While the screenplay is largely fiction (the Wiley 1935 team did not defeat Harvard for a national championship, though it did defeat the University of Southern California), its message is based on Tolson's belief that a solid education transcends race, religion and class.

Moviegoers in Nashville generally praised the film as gritty and inspiring.

"The hope this movie gives us is just incredible," said the Rev. Sonny Dickson, Hobson United Methodist Church. "It was a great Christmas present to myself."

"I hope it wins an Oscar!" exclaimed 19-year-old Kristen Dunlap-Berg, West Nashville United Methodist Church.

For Wiley College alumnus Dick Stewart of the Class of 1954, the film captured his alma mater’s character and his own experience as a student there.

"Tolson entrusted his students to represent the college and, in so doing, to represent themselves and an entire race," said Stewart. "Professor Tolson’s impact on that little school was so great that by the time I got there 15 years later, he was still spoken of as a legend."

Historically black colleges

Wiley is one of 11 historically black colleges supported by the United Methodist Black College Fund.

Cynthia Bond Hopson, an executive with the fund, echoed Washington's description of the movie as a "David and Goliath" story that made her want to "stand up and cheer." She spoke with pride about the United Methodist connection to Wiley College "because again we have done what God has called us to do. We have moved mountains simply by educating people and giving them a sense of ‘I can do this for myself.'"

To learn more about Wiley College, visit www.wileyc.edu.  Information about the Black College Fund can be found at http://www.umcgiving.org/content/BCF/.

*Passi-Klaus works with the Connectional Giving team of United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

video story

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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Resources

The Great Debaters - Supporting Leadership for Life

Wiley College

"The Great Debaters"

Board of Higher Education and Ministry

Black College Fund


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