The Great Debaters – Comparing America Of The 1930s And India Of The Present (Part 1)

Denzel Washington stars as Mel Tolson in The Great Debaters.

Through the eyes of the film, “The Great Debaters”, Avik Ghosh looks at the comparison between America of 1930s and India of the present.

Denzel Washington starrer, ‘The Great Debaters’ (2007) is a period film based on the period of 1930s of America when racism was still at its peak but somewhere something the wheels of justice started churning. Somehow the film reminds us strongly of an India of today where intolerance, hatred, ghettoization of communities is increasing. Laws and resolutions are getting passed which are inherently draconian and the most anti-minority laws ever.

The first scene of the movie opens with a scene of the gathering of the rich, aristocratic Black people. As Mr. Farmer addresses the gathering of the rich and educated black community, we automatically realize that no matter which country, no matter what era, no matter how marginalized a community we are talking about – it will have its pockets of rich and educated. And history has shown us that, be it Karl Marx or Gandhi, it has always been the middle class educated moderately rich who has been able to bring about a social revolution. Reason being that the lower class do not have any voice in society and also they are so engrossed in their daily struggle of survival, that they do not have the luxury to stop a moment and reflect upon the greater good of the society. The rich on the other hand were able to become rich because of the connivance with the majority community going against their own brothers. The Bahadur award recipients during the freedom struggle of India is a perfect example.

Even in India of today as fascism snakes up, the regime divides the country into the marginalized Muslims, Sikhs, etc and the redneck majority Hindus – people like Zafar Yunus Sareshwala get rewarded with BMW showrooms for exactly such collusion. But it’s academicians like Irfan Habib and others, who are speaking like Mr. Farmer in that hall room saying, “Education is the only way out of darkness and into the glorious light of life.” With a literacy rate of 67.6%, Muslims in India have the lowest literacy rate amongst all communities against a national average of 74%. Similarly during that period in America, the black community were far less educated than the white community.

The introduction of Denzel Washington was a scene worth remembering. As the guy with the aura and dynamic personality enters the classroom and roars out, “I too am America.” The audience and his students get overwhelmed but such a simple claim – a slogan of minorities all across the world. Even all the minority groups all across this great and vast nation is voicing a similar plea, a plea to be recognized as “A part of India”. Another feature that does not escape the eye, is that it is an all-black school as Blacks at that time were not allowed to take admission in white colleges. Here though it is not as dark and grim but still Madrassas run rampantly as there is discrimination at the level of education be it primary or secondary.

Denzel Washington’s character also in that same scene motivates his team to change the dictionary if they can, which has words like “denigration” which is a derogatory word derived from the word “Negro”. He said till the time Negros will be used as abuses, the state of the black community in the US will not change. Here in India also words like “Acchut”, “Chamar” and other derogatory abuses are based on caste based minority/marginalized communities. There are also other abuses stemming out of religious communities.

Another typical Indian trait seen in Indian parents is that parents get petrified if they find their kids to be dating while in school. Immediately they ask them to focus on studies and forget about everything else. A similar such altercation took place when Farmer Junior came from a party pretty late at night and immediately his father concluded that he must have been out with Samantha and advised him to “not take the eye off the ball” and concentrate on his studies – a typical response even today from any Indian parents especially from the same economic class as the Farmers were off.

A gut wrenching scene from ‘The Great Debaters’- a scene that haunts from the time it occurs till the time the climax of the scene where Farmer Junior brings it up and bases his final debate argument is the scene where as they were driving through Texas, they found an angry mob of white men gathered around a dead body burning and hanging from the tree. On close observation, it was seen that it was a nigger who was hanging though most of its skin had already melted away. This was quite a familiar site during those times in the south of America, especially in Texas. Mob lynching was quite common then in America and quite common now in “modern” India.

The red neck Whites called it justice whereas it actually was nothing else but ethnic cleansing. Another film that comes to mind which also depicts ethnic cleansing brutally and honestly is ‘Mississippi Burning’ (1988). As mob lynching of Negros was extremely common during that period, some of the best morbid writings of that time also talked about these lynchings and hanging bodies from trees.

(To Be Continued)

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