The one thing that every white person who sees "The Great Debaters" comes away with is the fear, the paranoia, and the rage that was a part of all black people's lives in the south in the 1930s. Twice in the course of the film, an automobile carrying, in one case a black family; in another the Wiley College debating team, come upon a scene in which their lives are in imminent danger because they are black. One is a confrontation with an illiterate white farmer who would as soon shoot them as not; the other is a lynching, shown in such detail that it can turn your stomach.
In all of the films I've seen about blacks and whites in the south; in all the books I've read, in all the newsreel footage I've seen of the era, I have never been so scared, so ashamed of my race, so angry at my country. And I come from a family of New York Jews who in the 1930s held fundraisers for the Highlander Folk School and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (and if you don't know them look them up on Google or Wikipedia).
"The Great Debaters" is the more-or-less true story of Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington, who also directed), a poet and teacher who in the academic year 1934-1935 took his students at this impoverished little black college in Marshall, Texas, to the top rung of college debating competitions. In the film they end up beating Harvard (in reality they beat U.S.C.). But it matters not who they beat; it was the first time in history a black college ever debated a white college.
The film has been described as another in the grand sports tradition of the underdog working hard, meeting the odds-on favorite and beating them; and in its scheme it is exactly that; Tolson chooses his team of four, works with them on elocution, on marshalling their arguments, on speaking directly and forcefully; and then takes them on a series of debates, first with other black schools, then gets his first chance to debate a white school in Oklahoma, then on and up until they get an invitation to debate Harvard in Boston.
There's more, of course; Two of the debaters have a romantic episode; the third has a crush on the same girl. He is also the son of a rigid, get-along to go-along father who is the school's chaplain. But the impact of the film depends on the constant concern that some whites will show up to kill or maim them, along with a sheriff who won't do anything about it. That was, for me, the most frightening element of the film.