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The Great Debaters: Group Counseling

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This paper will discuss a movie review from a movie that uses elements of group counseling. I will use director Denzel Washington’s film, “The Great Debaters”, which was released in 2007 by The Weinstein Company. From this resource, I will give a brief synopsis of the film and identify the group illustrated in the film. Including the purpose of the group, identify what type of group it is, the group members and the roles they play, the group leader, and discuss the leadership style. In addition, I will identify the obvious and implied norms and rules that appear to be operating within the group. Also, I will identify a reoccurring pattern of behavior in terms of sequence and event, whether the group appears to undergo a development process as a group. I will also describe how social and contextual factors impact individuals, interpersonal, and the group dynamic. Finally, I will select a theory, explain how I would apply this specific theory to the group depicted in the film, and provide an overview of this paper.


The Great Debaters takes place in Marshall, Texas, which is home to Wiley College. In 1935-36 when the movie took place, Wiley College was a small black liberal college 150 miles east of Dallas, Texas. The movie was based on a true story of the 1935 Wiley College debate team toppling the national champions from the University of Southern Cal.

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Denzel Washington, or known in the film as Professor Melvin Tolson, coaches the debate team to a nearly-undefeated season that experiences the first ever debate between students from white and negro colleges. The team of four includes a female student, Samantha Booke, and three male students, Henry Lowe, James Farmer Jr., and Hamilton Burgess. Due to the time period of the film in which it took place, the students and coach had to fight against Jim Crow, racism, sexism, a lynch mob, an arrest, and a near-riot as they challenged white colleges and the very own prestige Harvard University’s national champions debate team.

The Group

The purpose of the debate team is to provide students the opportunity to participate in debates, public speaking competitions, and speak out for equality, freedom, and justice. In this debate team, group psychoeducational therapy is used to help the team function effectively and open. A psychoeducational group is a specific group therapy that focuses on educating clients. This therapy is based on the principles of cognitive behavior therapy. A psychoeducational group is likely to consist of members from the same background and or interests. The leader of the group could be a mental health expert, a peer counselor, members of the community, but in this case, in The Great Debaters, the leader is both a member of the community and a professor. While the four students on the team are members who are learning from the leader and creating themselves along the way. The leader, Professor Tolson, empowers the group to expand their knowledge, deal with the disruptive civil matters outside of the group, creates opportunity, fights for equality, and encourage the members to fight for themselves. In addition, Professor Tolson, states directly to Henry Lowe that “I and any other professor on this campus are here to help you find, take back, and keep your righteous mind”, and that’s exactly what he helped his group members do.

Norms and Rules

In the psychoeducational group, the leader, Professor Tolson, creates both obvious and implied norms and rules that operate within the group. An obvious rule is that he will always write the member’s debates. This rule was communicated to the team members before the first competition they ever had. When the members gathered around after Professor Tolson choose his four students for his team, they were discussing how they were going to go about writing their debate speeches. This is when Professor Tolson verbally informed the group that they were going to debate against Prairie View A&M University’s debate team in one week to come. Ms. Brooke stated, “one week isn’t enough time to write our arguments”, this is when Professor Tolson replied to the group “you do the research, I do the arguments.” This statement got the group members rowdy, for they did not agree with the professor. “I write the arguments, that is the way it’s been, and that is the way it is going to be!” He declared this rule and enforced it onto his group members, from now and so forth.

On the other hand, an implied norm is that Henry Lowe is the main debater on the team. Henry Lowe was assumed the main debater from the group by his success in delivering the first debate. Mr. Lowe is brilliant at delivering the arguments. Mr. Lowe got a standing ovation from the first competition against Prairie View A&M University. Mr. Lowe and Mr. Burgess led the Wylie College debate team to all of their victories with Professor Tolsons’ arguments. At first, the other members of the group are perfectly fine with this unspoken rule due to the constant victories and attention they are receiving from the newspapers and their town. This, however, then causes a rift between the group when Mr. Farmer Jr. becomes jealous of Mr. Lowe. Then he desires to compete just as Mr. Lowe does in hopes to be better than him.


One re-occurring pattern of behavior in terms of a sequence of events is the fact that the group, including the professor, faces many situations of racism. The racism events that the group overcomes are important. Not only does it represent the racism and violence that whites have against negros during that period. The Jim Crow law enforces racial segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. In 1896, in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for African Americans “did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment”, ignoring evidence that the facilities for blacks were inferior to those intended for whites (Urofsky, 2018).

One of the racist events that occurred that played a big role in the series of events was when Professor Tolson organized the Southern Farmers Union (STFU), an organization made up of black and white sharecroppers who have been driven off their land. The farmers gathered for a meeting to discuss their unity when they are attacked by a vigilante mob of whites. Those who attacked the STFU were made up of the local sheriff and racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. This event involved Professor Tolson, Mr. Farmer Jr., and some of the townspeople from Marshall, Texas. This event united the professor and group member and motivated the townspeople to fully support the professor, his group, and their fight for equality and freedom through education and debate,

Another one of the racist events that occurred to the group was when they were traveling for a competition and they encountered a black man hanging lifeless by a tree. The man was lynched by a group of whites. Lynching was a community event with the means of terrorizing blacks and that’s exactly what they did, terrorize the group, In the end of the film, Mr. Farmer Jr. uses this experience as a source on his debate argument against Harvard University’s debate team. This was a very powerful source to use because the group members witness this first hand, they are living proof of the racism and violence against negros. These racist events the group experienced, have motivated them and empowered them to continue debating for equality. The Wiley College debate team always argues for what could be called the right, or progressive, side of the issues in dispute. This included the integration of the school system, the right of poor people to social reform, and racial injustice. Both Professor Tolson and the group members believe that the conditions of racism and inequality would be overcome through education. The professor attempts to educate his psychoeducation group to help them become better students and better people. They endure so many hardships and conflicts, yet they manage to overcome them bravely.

Group Development Process

Two critical incidents make a change in the way that the group members interact with each other. The first critical incident is when Professor Tolson gets blacklisted and other colleges do not wish to compete with Wiley College’s debate team after that. This impacted the way the group members interact with each other because this causes Mr. Burgess to quit the debate team and leave his teammates due to potential risks. Mr. Burgess’s absence called for Ms. Brooke to step up and take his place. This completely changed the dynamic of the group, yet they remained strong and victorious.

The second critical incident that affected the way the group members interact with one another is when Ms. Brookes’ also decides to leave the team. Ms. Booke and Mr. Lowe had a romantic relationship that developed since the start of their debate team. On their way to a competition, Mr. Lowe went out without the team. He got extremely drunk and was seen kissing another girl by Ms. Booke. This angered Ms. Booke and she decided she could no longer stay and compete alongside Mr. Lowe for that competition. This also completely changed the dynamic of the group and the way they interacted with each other. In addition, Mr. Lowe and Mr. Farmer Jr. were the only ones left for that competition which they lost due to the rift and tension in the group.

A significant individual development that at least two characters undergo as a result of participating in this group is at the end of the film when the Wiley College debate team goes up against Harvard University’s debate team. This is a big event because Professor Tolson is not available to accompany the team on the trip due to personal circumstances. Harvard finds out that Professor Tolson has been writing the team’s arguments, therefore, they demand that the team write a new argument without the professor. This is when we can see both Mr. Lowe and Mr. Farmer Jr.’s character development. Mr. Lowe was forced to stop being immature and be responsible for the team. While Mr. Farmer Jr. must break from his nerves and anxiety and debate like he never has before. This development for both group members, Mr. Lowe and Mr. Farmer Jr., could not have been possible without being a part of the debate team and the psychoeducational group.

Socio-Historical/Cultural Context

As mentioned before, the movie took place back in 1935, back in the Jim Crow era where racism and segregation thrived. The group fought for equality and against violence against negros. These cultural and socio-historical events impacted the individual, interpersonal, and group dynamics. Professor Tolson dealt with a lot of these events as an individual, especially being part of the STFU organization. The professor gets locked up for supporting the sharecroppers and gets a lot of personal threats and as stated previously, gets blacklisted. Also, these events impacted interpersonal relationships because it creates a stronger bond between the members of the group and the leader. The members fully support and trust the leader. They go as far as also nearly starting a riot to demand that their group leader and professor get let out of jail. This continues to build trust and loyalty in their interpersonal relationships with the leader. In addition, the dynamic of the group is impacted by these cultural events due to serving as motivation for them to win and continue fighting for justice. The group has endured countless problems due to the culture and the socio-historical events going on around them.

Group Work Theory

A theory of group I could apply to the group depicted in the film would be the psychodynamic group theory. This theory states that there are unconscious forces that drive behavior. There are various techniques of this theory that I could use in a group, the first being free association. Free association would be important to use with this group because I would want the members to be free to talk to me about whatever comes up without censoring. This is important with the group depicted in the film because of the era the film took place in. The clients would be free to talk about racism, their experiences, and it would amazing to get a group of members that have all had experiences with the same events. This would make the members feel safe and find comfort in the fact that they are not the only ones fighting those battles. In addition, this theory directs much of the focus and energy on analyzing past relationships and traumatic experiences and how they have a relation to their current life. This would also be important in a group of this sort because the members have gone through a lot of traumatic events and injustices based on their culture and the color of their skin. These traumatic events could have a significant role in how the individual is shaped now. It would be important to discuss those events amongst a group of those who may share those same traumatic experiences.


Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters was an outstanding film. I truly enjoyed watching it and getting to see Wylie College’s debate team in their successes and their hardships. Those challenges shaped those young students into becoming civil rights fighters, teachers, etc. Not only did they fight for freedom, justice, and equality then, but they continued to do so the rest of their lives through education, just as Professor Tolson believed was possible. In addition, it was interesting to analyze the film and how they worked together as a group. It was fascinating to see how events and certain circumstances changed the dynamic of the group. Any positive or negative event could have a significant change in the group. Nonetheless, when needed to work together for bigger causes, any differences or negative dynamics can always be put aside to reach a common goal. Also, it was insightful to get to consider what group theory I would use with the group. It allowed me to reflect and consider the outcomes that counseling could have on a group of members who share the same background and oppression. I will never get the opportunity to be a part of a group that has faced those challenges. If I lived in the same lifetime as those individuals in the film, I would have joined them to fight for freedom, justice, and equality through education and the power of the group as well.


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