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“S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

Chris Jack as Crooks (The Dukes, Lancaster)

Racism in early twentieth-century America is described in terms of pathology by Crooks – the man of colour, with a literal and symbolic crooked back, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Crook’s sentiments expressed here reveal elements of the soliloquy in them because they offer a fenestral glimpse into the character’s bare soul. Like so, reading becomes almost tantamount to voyeurism; Crooks’ intense pain is coated only by the incumbency of discourse which is “all in a vele of silke and silver thin”1. Yet, paradoxically, such moments are often the most memorable ones in literature, for they present characters affirming themselves by unashamedly presenting extremes of human emotion and/or philosophy.

“Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” – Edmund 2

“Better to reign in Hell,  than serve in Heav’n.”  – Satan 3

It is ironic therefore, that in  their aloneness in the text, characters reveal their true social selves. Crooks’ aloneness makes him lonely. But it is ironic as well that a character like him – rejecting literature and books in this passage – should be given his voice in Steinbeck’s novella.

The protagonist of Denzel Washington’s  The Great Debaters (2007) – James Farmer Jr. – is similarly well-acquainted with books, and like Crooks he rejects them at one point. Like Of Mice and Men, this film is set in the time of the Great Depression in the US, when the American Dream was shattered and satirised by bleak reality. Spiritedly acted by Denzel Whitaker, James Jr. still dreams of being chosen for the Wiley College Texas debate team by the inspirational Professor Melvin Thompson (Denzel Washington). This plan not only conforms to his studious nature, but also had the benefit of potentially bringing him closer to the beautiful, older and dignified Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett); she ends up being the first female in the College debate team. But as Robert Burns puts it in his poem To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough – the inspiration for the title of Steinbeck’s aforementioned novella – “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. James Jr. does get hand-picked by Professor Thompson, but – like the valiant Red Crosse Knight in The Faerie Queene – he has to go through a purging pilgrimage of sorts to arrive at his Holy Grail…in his case:  the Wiley vs. Harvard debate. These tribulations include being rejected by Samantha for another member of the debate team, seeing two team-members having to leave the team at terrible timing, and having to have an argument with his conservative father – Dr. James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) – in an attempt to cover Tolson’s Communist activities. Most scarring and demoralising of all however, is the racism he has to endure for being African American, and the savage lynching they witness halfway through a car journey.

Strangely, but also predictably enough, this lynching proves to be a valuable personal experience to draw from in the

The debaters and the professor (left)

Harvard debate. Debate competitions are remarkably similar to the soliloquy format alluded to earlier, and in this sense they can be very dramatic. Eloquence, lucidity in arguments, confidence and convincingness are rewarded – and can there be a language be more powerful than, ironically, the language of the opressed and the disenfranchised? The importance of language is eloquently presented through the discourse of the film itself. In fact, one of the most memorable quotes from the film is the motivational, question-and-answer mantra that the Professor drums into the minds and hearts of the students. Rather less highlighted in the film, I felt, was the dangerous terrain between mantra and propoganda; the latter being equally detrimental to the individual and the community, even if the ideology behind it is a positive one. The Wiley chant goes as follows:

Melvin B. Tolson: Who is the judge?

Debaters: The judge is God.

Melvin B. Tolson: Why is he God?

Debaters: Because he decides who wins or loses. Not my opponeent.

Melvin B. Tolson: Who is your opponent?

Debaters: He does not exist.

Melvin B. Tolson: Why does he not exist?

Debaters: Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the truth I speak!

The communal feeling of the African American community that Washington presents to us is a vibrant, earthly and wholesome one. Perhaps one of the devices in the film that projects this most effectively is music. Composed by James Newton Howard, the music seems to act as another voice in the polyphony of the debate. This is reminiscent of the narrative voice in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which, although being omniscient, still manages to translate the communality of the society.

The inspirational story that the film narrates becomes even more persuasive in its message when one considers that it is partially based on the true story of the Wiley College debate team, and that the real James Farmer Jr. actually went on to debate with Malcolm X, and win. While The Great Debaters does come across as overtly ‘polished’ at times, it does have the power to engage the viewer, raise awareness and make a case for tolerance and equality.

Yesterday, January 15, was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Apart from remembering the accomplishments of this great person, I think it is also worthwile to cherish and positively exploit the power of language and debate. To mark the birthday of MLK, the King Center has made 200,000 of his papers freely available online. Have a read, watch the movie, and be inspired to act! 

Watch the trailer here:

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1 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book II, Canto xii.77

2 William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene ii

3 John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 263