The construct of the film, The Great Debaters, demonstrates the challenges African Americans faced in the 1930’s, as they play out through the capacity of individuals, their perceptions, emotions, and their relation to society. The historical context of the setting is Marshall, Texas during the Great Depression when state and federal laws were overrun by Jim Crow segregation. The lead character, Melvin B. Tolson, functions as a professor whose role is not only to combat racial inequality, the morality of civil disobedience, and integrating the revolutionary ideals of the Northern unions, but to aid each of the students on the debate team from Wiley College-James Farmer, Jr., Henry Lowe and Samantha Booke-to do the same in their lives.
The film presents various social circumstances which inhibit the main characters and the black supporting characters’ abilities to defeat racial injustice. Because of social inequality and the recent abolition of slavery, blacks were born without the right to a birth certificate, a symbol of their lack of existence as an American citizen. The dialogue between Samantha and Henry creates the atmosphere of racial inequality as her dream of becoming a lawyer is a shocking declaration based on there being only two female Negro lawyers in the state of Texas at the time. Mr. Tolson, while delivering a speech to his debate team outlining their duties, established unspoken social contexts the power of language holds. He uses the abstraction of the word ‘denigrate’ and its Latin meaning of “to darken/to blacken” to convey that our own words are the social context which separates society and attaches a negative connotation to all things black including Negros.
There are many spoken and unspoken political circumstances which contribute to the trials faced by each character. Jim Crows laws are the broadest of these circumstances, presenting white opposition from the south with the unspoken ability to break apart a peaceful and legal gathering hosted by Melven Tolson, beating and killing those in attendance while setting the location on fire. When the town sheriff is unable to procure the name of the leader of the revolutionary “communist” union organizer, which ultimately brings poor blacks and whites together to fight against a legitimate cause and overcome racism in the process, his beating and torturing of the poor black farmers demonstrates how far his legal abilities stretch unmanaged by any of the other police figures, the state, or the federal authorities. He illegally arrests Mr. Tolson and holds him, without allowing the presence of his attorney, knowing that his power will go unquestioned in Southern rule.
Black “town niggers” are juxtaposed by the poor rural white farmers who, despite being in poorer economic situations, still insult the black community with their words and what meager actions they are capable in an attempt to make themselves feel better and psychologically project their own depression and lack of secure living. The largest of problems conveyed through this film, economically speaking, is the Great Depression. This time in American history did not affect by color, but affected everyone. The clothes the actors wore, the larger angles which depicted decrepit living standards, and the constant mention of needing money, not having enough food, and the debate over the welfare program are all viable means of demonstrating this in the film.
All of these ideals are ultimately resolved in the ideals that there is no color to poverty and everyone should work together. Reacting with a calm and continuing on with hope that words will make a difference and that fighting fairly against white schools will bring change, acceptance, and a better life for those current and future generations through fighting for the argument that civil disobedience is a moral weapon in the fight for justice.