“The Great Debaters” – A Movie Review: Understanding the “Black” American Community

“The Debaters” Farmer Jr is in the far right. He is very close like me, though. Kind of shy to express “love”. I like his character.

The story of this movie reminded me of what I accomplished when I was in my undergraduate studies in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, years ago before I left the country in order to study in the United States. I also attended several debate competitions across the province and I won, of course, with my team. However, a victory that I saw after watching this movie is beyond what I felt as a champion from a debate competition. I almost think and feel the debates that students from Wiley College did was a debate of their own lives, as the “black.” After trying to see some of historical contexts of the United States, I come to see clearly where and how did the following words were being used: “minority”, “majority”, “civil rights”, “moral”, “anarchy”, “equality”, and “freedom”. These words are very crucial in the social life of the people of the United States. I will try to link this movie with what I have understood so far about the general view of American lives. Then, I link these words by comparing them with how I view my country. Anyway, please bear with me, though, because I am not part of these whole discussions on “black” and “white”, or even “race” in the United States, but, of course, my basic rights is to say something that I think as acceptable as a student studying English. Here it is. Are you ready?

“Minority” and “Majority”

The idea that I could get after watching this movie was the idea of “black” as the minority in the land of America, during that time. Meanwhile, the “white” is the majority. All these two words were basically related to the situation of racial problems. The overall message is that the dominance of “white” race over the “black” race. One word that is being used to portray the “black” people is “nigger” (it is offensive, even until now). For them, this word is completely demeaning and lowering them among the other races. Mr. Thompson, as a teacher of Willey College, trained his students to be debaters that always speak the truth. He taught his students to debate the topics through facts, but without losing the sense of being honest. From the debate that I watched, it is clear to me that basically, for American discourses, the idea of “minority” and “majority” is related to race. Unfortunately, these two words today are associated with so many elements in the society, which at the end, causing chaos.

“Civil rights”

The setting of this movie was in Texas. The overall plot of the story was about the efforts done by the black community to voice themselves from being subjected as slaves, or the second class citizens. When the words “civil rights” are being used in the debate, I began to understand the context of how the words are being used. “Civil rights” are related to the fulfillment of basic rights that most Americans need to have, including education, economy, and social welfare. I guess that all these aspects are connected to the ideas of American Dreams. Anyway, when I link these words to my country, Indonesia, I think the proper translation will be “Hak-Hak Warga Sipil.” All these rights have been arranged appropriately in Indonesia. Meanwhile, in the United States, “civil rights” are related to the efforts of gaining “equal” chances and opportunities either for “black” or “white” people, or even for “color” people. Kind of confusing to me, somehow, why all these things emerge in America. Basically, beneath that colorly skin, the blood is the same, Red. Beneath your rights, there are rights of other people, too. Just don’t be too greedy for rights.

“Moral”

A spot that I saw “morality” in the story was when I understood the ideas stated by Farmer Jr. His father was a religious man in Christianity (I don’t know for which denominations). His father was such a great man, I would say, because he himself did not preach many things to his son, instead he showed it to his son on what it means to do “good”. One time, he got so angry when he found Jr went somewhere without his consent in the middle of the night. (Well, my dad would do the same thing by the way, because I know he cared for my safety). Then, in the debate of this team when they were in Harvard, I found many contemplating statements between Willey College and Harvard University. It seems to me that the debate was arguing over many facts but geared toward dogmatic attitude. One thing that I value the most is the statement that Farmer Jr stated about what he saw when he was on his way to Harvard. Mr. Thompson had warned them by not going too far, but still, Farmer Jr followed his heart. His truthfulness cannot be beaten any longer. In that hall, he declared the truth. He eloquently stated his idea on “God should be the judge”. The aspect of “morality” that I see at this point is related to “inviting the sense of humanity among the people listening to his speech at that time.” I find his statement as very eloquent. Well, not only he won the debate, but he also gave a clear evidence that, Indeed, “Don’t judge the book by its cover”

“Anarchy” – “Equality” – “Freedom” – “Racism”

How about these three words? If you watch this movie, you know what I mean.
In American context, these three words mean a lot. However, for other contexts, these words might not be interpreted the same as it is in America. “Anarchy” in America, especially in this movie, is geared toward the actions of slavery, where at that time, most black people were killed and tortured, only because they were black. Meanwhile, “equality” relates to the idea of everyone should reveive equal opportunities in life. Being fair and being balance toward different aspects of social life. “Freedom” in this movie means to be free from being viewed as “slaves”. I think that it is the key voice that most black people want to achieve. To be free from any oppression of the master. Unfortunately, for other contexts in other country, the word “freedom” can also be interpreted as “life with too much personal greediness”, especially when other people in other countries view American as a country with luxury and power over military force. Like me, I come from Indonesia, so the meaning of “freedom” to me is related to “independence” or, kemerdekaan dari penjajah. Simply put, “freedom” in Indonesia means to be free from any colonials and oppressors as well as ruthless leaders. Do you get my idea at this point, right? Even though I can say I am free, but it does not mean that I can harm others as I want. We all are basically social creatures. “Racism” means the ideology of separating people based on “race”. Luckily, I do not have this term in my personal dictionary as a Muslim. Even when I am in the United States, I did not aware of all these things. I just make friends with everyone. I do not care how they look. What I do care is their attitude and politeness toward each other. This aspect is a common sense among humans. What hurts you means hurts, too, for others. Therefore, my point is, when we want to use all these words in our conversation or writing, please also recognize the history behind the use of these words. Otherwise, you just make more noise, instead of giving some solutions that the world already has these times.

Does history repeat itself? Not necessarily. History repeats when we repeat it. Don’t we make our own history? My suggestion for other non-English speakers is that in any terms that you need to use in English, please be aware of how English people use such words. Fortunately, I am a Muslim. I never have all these words in my dictionary as a Muslim. The only “anarchy” for me is when you label people with terms that do not represent them entirely. “Equality” for me is contextual. I disagree with “equality” in my work place, for example. If I have worked hard but my colleague does not, and he receives the same wage as I do, that would be unfair. “Freedom” is when I am free from the Hell Fire. How? Should you be dead first? No. At least, doing good deeds among people is part of approaching the heaven: you don’t have enemies on earth and you don’t have problems in life. “Racism” for me never exist. Never. What counts as good people to me is when such people set their life with a purpose. Why are they doing what they are doing? Why should they be born in a certain physical condition? You know, I want to be a tall man with muscles and pointed nose, but in reality, I am Asian – short and kind of fat, with dark skin. Should I curse the way I look? Hoho. Nope. Like Farmer Jr said, “Let God be the judge”. My God is Allah SWT. So, I let Allah SWT judges me on what I am inside. People change over times, anyway. Today is a bad ass, next time a holy person. Nobody knows. Today is a holy person, next time a bad ass. Everything depends on the way we look at ourselves by asking, “Who am I? Why was I born through that parents? Why would I have to be in such and such a way? What is freedom to me?”

“From all shapes and size, the content is the essential. Without the fragrance, a bottle of perfume is just a bottle. What makes it good is what’s inside. If it smells good, no matter how you cover it, and no matter how the cover looks, it always smells good. Otherwise, you have problems with your nose” – Syayid Sandi Sukandi, 2013, USA.

One thought on ““The Great Debaters” – A Movie Review: Understanding the “Black” American Community

  1. Pingback: The Great Debaters: Inspiring and Uplifting | Mission Sharing Knowledge

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