Churchgoers Hail 'The Great Debaters'

( [email protected] ) Dec 23, 2007 03:14 PM EST
"The Great Debaters" takes the big screen on Christmas Day, and days ahead of the nationwide release, black churchgoers are already hailing the film for the hope it conveys.
Denzel Washington stars in The Weinstein Company's 'The Great Debaters.' The movie opens nationwide on Dec. 25. (MGM Distribution)

"The Great Debaters" takes the big screen on Christmas Day, and days ahead of the nationwide release, black churchgoers are already hailing the film for the hope it conveys.

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

Hundreds of members from Nashville area United Methodist churches watched a sneak preview of the film starring Denzel Washington as director and star and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey.

The movie is inspired by the true story of the 1935 debate team at Wiley College, a tiny, all-black school in Marshall, Texas. The debate team, coached by Professor Melvin B. Tolson - played by Washington - competes against several predominantly white schools and wins. In the movie, the team beats Harvard. In real life, Wiley beat the University of Southern California.

The debaters in the film include 14-year-old prodigy James Farmer Jr. (played by Denzel Whitaker), who went on to become a civil rights leader; Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); and the team's first woman, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett).

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

Wiley College alumnus Dick Stewart of the Class of 1954 says Tolson's legacy still lives on.

"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."

Wiley College is the first historically black college west of the Mississippi River and one of 11 black colleges supported by the United Methodist Black College Fund.

"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, whose Harpo Films produced the movie, said in a video message.

"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," she added.

Washington, who attends West Angeles Church in Los Angeles, told Beliefnet that the historic debate wasn't about hostility between the races but about how you overcome it.

"The bottom line is that these young kids fought their way through it and ultimately were winners. And that's the message, that you don't have to give up. And you don't have to give in," he said.

Echoing Washington's description of the movie as a "David and Goliath" story, Cynthia Bond Hopson, an executive with the United Methodist Black College Fund, proudly spoke of the support the United Methodist Church provides to black colleges.

"We have moved mountains simply by educating people and giving them a sense of 'I can do this for myself,'" she said.

Current Wiley president Haywood L. Strickland recently announced that Washington will donate $1 million to the college's debate program, which recently got back on its feet again.

"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 nurturing," said Strickland.