Genre : Biography, Drama
Directors : Denzel Washington
Starring : Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise
Age : 13+
A drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College Texas. In 1935, he inspired students to form the school’s first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.
The plot revolves around the efforts of debate coach Melvin B. Tolson at historically black Wiley College 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 pervasive fear for blacks. In the movie, the Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University. This was their 47th annual debate team.
Tolson’s recognizes that his young debate students possess the spark of a new generation. Convinced that they could invoke great change if given the confidence and tools needed to do so, the tireless educator implores his students to take responsibility for the future while furtively attempting to protect them from his clandestine role as an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Chief among Tolson’s promising young students is a 14-year-old prodigy named James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Farmer’s father, James Sr. , is a renowned scholar and an important presence in the emerging student’s life. Yet despite his formidable reputation, James Sr. has not yet learned how to truly harness the power of knowledge through action and assertion. James Jr. has seen the raving effects of racism all around him, and longs to live in a future where no one must be in fear simply because of the color of their skin. Other talented debaters on Tolson’s team include fiercely independent student Henry Lowe , and Samantha Brooke — the first ever female ever to join the Wiley College debate team. While most educators may not have recognized the remarkable potential of assembling such a disparate team, Tolson’s unique vision truly set him apart from the pack as the team begins to experience a series of consecutive victories on their road to challenging Harvard at the National Championships.
The key line of dialogue, used several times, is a famous paraphrase of Augustine of Hippo: “An unjust law is no law at all.” The movie is based on an article written about the Wiley College debate team by Tony Scherman for the 1997 Spring issue of American Legacy.