Race & the Movies

When I was at Oprah last weekend, she mentioned the threads that exist in all of our lives.  The threads that connect who you once were with who you are now.  Threads that maybe made no sense at all at the time but now you are able to see them as a something that prepared you for who you are today.  Does that make sense?

At any rate, I’ve been thinking about this all week and one of the threads that came to mind was the debate team.  I was on the debate team in high school and back then, it was just something to do.  I had no grand scheme or plan with it.  It was just something to pass the time.  But looking back, I learned so much!  I learned how to debate both sides of the same argument, how to study and examine an issue, how to speak well in public with confidence and ease.  Now I can see just how much it prepared me for my life as a speaker, preacher and teacher.

A few weeks ago I listed “The Great Debaters” as one of my top 10 films worth watching that deal with issues of race.  The movie keeps coming to mind as I’ve been recollecting and remembering my own days on the debate team and I’d like to explore it a little more with you.

I’m been thinking it would be good to go through that list of movies and give you some of the reasoning behind why I think it should be included on that list and I’ll start with “The Great Debaters” because it’s been at the forefront of my mind.


3 Reasons to Watch “The Great Debaters”


Movies historically look at Blacks through the lens of slavery and Jim Crow.   I like this movie for the fresh perspective it brings us.  This is not about the victim vs. the victimizer.  Those stories absolutely need to be told but I like “The Great Debaters” because it views Black people through a lens of empowerment rather than oppression.  It shifts the narrative and we need that.


Denzel Washington’s character Melvin Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Texas demands nothing short of excellence from his students.  I think the “The Great Debaters” highlights the hard work and high standards of the Black community. This movie shows how central the pursuit of excellence is to the Black experience.  Dr. Tolson’s students didn’t have to be as good as their White counterparts.  They had to be better.  Their obstacles were SO much higher.   “The Great Debaters”  illustrates the Black community rising above and achieving that level of greatness even in the midst of such a highly racial social context.  What a legacy.


The dichotomy of the two lives of Professor Tolson.  On the one hand, he’s part of the upwardly mobile working class as a college professor yet he sneaks away at night to be part of the labor movement and risks his own life.  This movie was based on a true story and I’m sure that part of Tolson just wanted to get out.  He was a professor!  He didn’t have to be part of the labor movement!  But he chose to close that divide.  He was committed to the empowerment of his people and he understood that his education and his status was not just for himself.  The movie was good at exposing the complexities at play and the tensions involved within the Black community.

Those are my reasons.  What would you add?  Have you seen the movie?  What else do we learn by watching it?