If I Was Still Teaching . . .

  

Today I finally got to go see The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker and Forest Whitaker.  I’ve used amazing, awesome, and inspiring to describe this movie that is based on real events and real people at Wiley College in 1935.  The Great Debaters is a must see and needs to be in your movie library when it comes to DVD.

I heard trickles of information starting in November about this movie coming out and I knew it had to be special to have Oprah attached to it.  And Denzel too?  Yeah.  Then when I read about Professor Mel Tolson, my quest for more information deepened.

I sat down in my last row seat this morning and prepped my snacks around me.  A Black couple came and sat a few rows in front of me, but they spoke first.  That’s never happened to me before.  We had a brief conversation but it stuck with me.   It was just smiles and hellos that were spoken along with a comment about the emptiness of the theater, but there was so much more than that.

When the movie started, I was captivated by the opening scenes that showed us the five major characters preparing for the unknown.  If you know Black History, the name James Farmer played by Denzel Whitaker, was familiar to you.  Founder of CORE, we were able to see his beginnings as a college student under the tutelage of his father, a rigid preacher with high expectations for his son.

But who were Samantha Booke with an e and Henry Lowe with an e?  I don’t know about you but Jurnee Smollett transformed for me on the screen.  I’ve seen her as Denise on Full House, in Eve’s Bayou and Roll Bounce, on a TV show with her siblings, but this time I really believe that she immersed herself into her roll as Samantha Booke.  When she gave her debate against Oklahoma City University and ended with these powerful wordsNo, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!” — tears flowed.

I am not a child of this era, but my grandmother was 6 years old when this debate team was born and I’ve heard stories from her and my other family members.  I will never know first hand what life was like for my grandmother, her siblings, Tolson, the students at Wiley College or anyone else who lived in this time period.  Oh sure I can read books like Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Gordon Parks The Learning Tree, and Dorothy Height’s Open Wide the Freedom Gates, but there are still degrees of separation that I face.

I loved seeing the homecoming dance scene where Farmer signed Samantha’s dance card.  I had always heard about that but never seen it in action in a movie.  And I loved the Wiley sweaters that some of the students wore in the movie.

This evening, I came home and began to Google Samantha Booke.  I wanted to know more about her, her legal career and life after Wiley College.  Imagine my surprise to learn that Samantha Booke is really Henrietta Bell Wells who is a native of Houston, Texas and the lone survivor of the 1935 debate team.  95 year old Wells remains a Houston resident who met both Denzel and Jurnee Smollett.   If you were impressed by what we saw of Samantha in the movie, you haven’t  seen nothing yet.  Mrs. Wells attended classes in the day, debate practice at night, and worked three jobs!

Photo of Henrietta Bell Wells

If I was still teaching, I would be eager to tell my students about Mrs. Wells and her perseverance and determination.  I would want them to understand the meaning of that pig scene as well as the scene in the car on the way to the debate with Howard University.  I would want to impress upon them the meaning of teamwork and the strength of the Black community as we saw in the scenes with Wilson at Harvard University.  Most of all, I would want them to recognize the richness that is The Great Debaters and the power of words and ideas.  As Professor Tolson said to his debate team, “Debate is combat, but your weapons are words.”

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4 Responses to “If I Was Still Teaching . . .”

  1. Melody Says:

    This is the best movie I’ve seen in years! I’m not much of a movie watcher because they’re so long but this movie had me completely captivated that I didn’t even realize two hours had passed. Not only is the movie amazing but I really enjoyed the authenticity of the movie, actors, and production. The fact that the actors trained in Houston with Texas Southern’s debate team and that they met with Soror Wells really pleased me. I don’t mean to blog on your blog but I just really enjoyed this movie!

  2. carlasarratt Says:

    You know I don’t mind the length of the reply!

    It was an exceptional movie that totally transported me to Wiley College in 1935. I felt immersed in that time period and appreciate the details that the producers and directors insured were in the movie.

    And when I learned that Henrietta Bell Wells is a Soror of Delta Sigma Theta? The icing on the already delicious cake. The article previously posted about her is no longer available, but here is another article that I found about Mrs. Wells: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/movies/a_great_debater_looks_back.php

  3. lcdavis Says:

    Enjoyed your posted and message about the movie. I just watched it the second time, once at the theater and once at home. I think this movie should be watched by all school age kids as it can be used as learning tool. It is very sad that we African Americans have to learn of our great history in the movie theaters and not in school.

    • kevin2x Says:

      ALL 3 RESPONSE’S ARE SO POWERFUL AND TRUE.I HAVE WATCH THE MOVIE FOR THE FIRST TIME, AND IMMEDIATELY TOOK THT DVD IN MY DAUGHTERS ROOM AND TOLD HER TO WATCH THE MOVIE AND WE WILL DISCUSS IT LATER. THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS WERE NAME WEISTIN’S.HMMMM.(JUST THINKING ABOUT A BOOK NAME THE SECRET RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BLACKS AND JEWS)MRS. WELLS SHOULD HAVE BEEN DEPICTED IN THE MOVIE AS THE REAL PERSON..THANK U CARLA FOR SITE ON ARTICLE GOD BLESS YOU ALL FAMILY

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