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The opening montage unfolds to the blues soundtrack, "My Soul is a Witness.” We see a man running fast and furious through the woods juxtaposed against a party/club for blacks and a man giving a what looks like a commencement speech at a college . It is 1935 (I think) in Marshall, TX. We are introduced to Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), who is making advances on a woman in the club. She appears to respond to him and as they make their way outside kissing, an angry man approaches. Henry asks the woman who the man is and she reveals that the angry man is her husband. The angry husband pulls out a knife and begins to fight Henry. Henry gets the better of the angry husband and is about to cut him with his own knife when the running man we saw earlier arrives and stops him. Henry storms off.
We later learn that the running man is Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), Wiley College. Additionally, the man giving the speech is James Farmer, Sr. (Forrest Whitaker). James Farmer is also a college professor with a PhD from Boston College. We also see a young lady arriving with suitcases in tow. The young lady is revealed to be Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett)
Professor Tolson is in front of his class inviting some of them to debate team tryouts, which will occur at his house later that evening. At the tryouts about 30 or so students show up. Prof. Tolson creates a chalked off area called the Hot Spot for potential debaters to come up and show their debating skills. We see the students come up one by one to debate on a topic provided by the professor.
The Professors calls all of the students together the following day to announce who made the team. The following students made the team:
Samantha Booke (Alternate) Aspiring lawyer and first female ever to make the Wiley College debate team
James Farmer, Jr (Denzel Whitaker) (Alternate) 14 year old son of James Farmer, Sr with a crush on Samantha
Henry Lowe Smart and well-read, but volatile personality
Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) Talkative and affable personality
Professor Tolson begins training the debaters with unusual methods. He has them repeat a mantra (of sorts) with a cork in their mouths. They train and learn the debating process. After some training time (it’s not clear how much), the Debaters are informed that they have a debate in one week. They are to do all of the research and Professor Tolson will write the speeches they will deliver. They go on a lengthy streak of debate victories.
On a drive the Farmer family has an unfortunate encounter with a pig farmer. With James Farmer Sr, driving, he accidently hits and kills a pig. The pig’s owner comes out and humiliates Farmer Sr in front of his family. Farmer Sr, trying to avoid further incident, offers to pay the pig owner for his loss. The pig owner says that Farmer Sr. needs to pay him $25 for his loss. Not having that type of cash on him, Farmer Sr offers to endorse his monthly check from the college. The check is for $17. The pig farmer drops the check on the ground and forces Farmer Sr to pick it up from the ground. He then requires Farmer Sr to help him pick up the dead pig.
While they travel debating, we get some insight into the Professor Tolson’s life. We see him attempting to organize a union of the sharecroppers both black and white. He is leading such a meeting in a barn late at night. James Farmer Jr has followed the Professor to this meeting without his knowledge. A mob of white men and police burst into the barn to break-up the unionization efforts. The mob lights the barn on fire and drives through the barn with cars. A fleeing meeting attendee happens on Jr and saves him from the mob. Jr and the Professor flee. The Professor then swears Jr to secrecy about his activities saying that not even his wife is aware of what he is doing.
Jr tries to sneak into his house, but his father is up waiting. His father asks where he’s been since he is coming in at 1am. Jr refuses to tell his father where he’s been. His father is extremely upset and sends him to his room. Jr accuses his father of being weak to the pig farmer, which causes Sr. to slap him.
The Professor and his wife are stuffing envelopes with news clippings about the Wiley debating team. The clippings are being mailed to other colleges around the country in an effort to get other opponents, particularly white colleges. Eventually, the team is invited to debate the Oklahoma City University (a white school). Prior to their arrival at the debate, Hamilton quits the team under direction from his parents. His parents are concerned about the political activities of the professor.
The must debate is held at an off campus location. The topic is something like does welfare diminish work ethic. Samantha now moves up from alternate to a main debater with Henry Lowe. James Farmer, Jr remains an alternate. His main role at this point is to conduct research for the debates. The Wiley team wins the debate.
They continue having debates and remain undefeated. As they travel to a debate the team and professor happen upon a lynch mob. They observe the aftermath of a black man lynched and set on fire. The mob turns their attention on the team once they realize that a group of blacks are in the car. The professor backs the car out of the danger presented by the mob. They are all affected and Henry storms off to get drunk. He leaves the team for the evening. He returns with a girl, which upsets Samantha as she and Henry have a romantic relationship going. She is so upset that she leaves the team. 14 year old Jr is then forced into the role of main debater. He bombs and the Wiley team loses their first debate against Howard University.
Once they return home, the Professor receives a letter from Harvard University inviting the Wiley team for a debate. The debaters get ready for the Harvard team and Samantha rejoins the team. They all head to catch a train to Boston. Once at the train station, the Professor informs the team that he will not be travelling with them. As he was previously arrested for his political activities and a condition of his bail is that he not leave the state. The team does not think that they can win without him. He encourages them and off they go to Boston.
Once they arrive in Boston, they are met by a Harvard student and transported to a dorm on campus. While in the dorm room they receive a note from Harvard. The topic of the debate has been changed because the university has learned that their speeches are written by Wiley College faculty. The new topic has to do with the morality of civil unrest and the Wiley debaters are responsible for arguing the affirmative. The Wiley and Harvard teams will have 48 hours to prepare and each team will be given an identical set of books to perform their research.
At some point as the team is preparing, Jr and Henry get into an argument and Henry storms out. Henry eventually returns, but decides that Jr should be a main debater and he will be an alternate. Jr is skeptical because he did so poorly in his first debate. Henry implores him not to give up and he must do the best that he can.
Jr and Samantha debate the Harvard team. They successfully argue that civil unrest is in fact moral and a better alternative than violence. They use their previous experience with the lynch mob to emphasize the point. The Professor arrives, unbeknownst to the team, toward the end of the debate. The Wiley team triumphs. They were never aware of the Professor’s presence at the debate.
The movie ends and we see text that informs us of the following:
Samantha became a lawyer
Henry went on to study theology and become a minister
At 21 Jr started a civil rights group
The Professor became a world renowned poet and eventually organized a union od sharecroppers
The Wiley Debate Team went undefeated for 10 years
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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The Wiley College Debate Team is wildly successful and eventually become the first black school to debate with white schools. They eventually get an invitation to debate the national champions at Harvard University. The Wiley Team wins the debate and goes on to be undefeated for the next 10 years.
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