The Great Debaters (2007)

DVD Cover (The Weinstein Company)
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Overall Rating 75%
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Ranked #1,940
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A drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College Texas. In 1935, he inspired students to form the school's first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship. --IMDb
Review by bluemeanie
Added: January 02, 2008
What is the fascination with Denzel Washington? I just don't get it most of the time. The man gets a lot of praise for, pretty much, playing the same role in every single film he takes on. When was the last time you saw him play something other than 'the angry black man'? Even in its more subtle incarnations, it's still a take on that same role. "American Gangster" from earlier this year has been lauded with praise, most notably for Washington's performance, when it was nothing better than anything else we've seen him do. He won the Academy Award for "Training Day" and that was not a strong film, and his performance was not spectacular. His latest film, as both actor and director, is "The Great Debaters", produced by Oprah Winfrey. Lucky for Denzel, he's a strong director and his second film behind the camera is one of the finest films he's tackled in a long while. I went into the film expecting to be disappointed the same way I am typically disappointed in a Denzel project, but found myself totally involved and engaged in a story I knew very little about. So, kudos to Mr. Washington for finally making a believer out of me, all of these years down the road.

The film centers around Wiley College, located in a small Texas town - a black college where the Jim Crowe South is alive and well. Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) coaches the school's debate team and the film follows their undefeated season and eventual invitation to debate Harvard in a historic battle between an all black college and an Ivy League institution. We follow the members of the debate team, including James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), whose father Dr. James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) is the local minister and wants Mr. Tolson to stop his late night rendezvous with the local farmers about forming a Union. Why? Well, it's raised the ire of the local sheriff (John Heard) and his clan of racists and bigots. Marshall, Texas is still a town where blacks are lynched for the hell of it - where whites feel like they own everything and have no desire to see black men and women succeed. It's the stereotypical Jim Crowe South. A lot of the drama deals with the efforts of Mr. Tolson to see his debate team go as far as they can go, and to help the local farmers unionize, despite threats against his own person. The final battle at Harvard is the culmination of everything these kids and their teacher have been through.

You can always tell when a film has been directed with confidence, and such is the case with "The Great Debaters". Washington obviously has a passion about the material that carries over into each and every scene. He recreation of the Jim Crowe South is flawless, with detail and attention paid to everything therein. Washington also directs at a furious pace, taking time to establish some very likable characters, but still managing to show their darker sides and hidden secrets. The debate sequences are also handled very well, especially the final battle with Harvard. You really get a sense of the pressure these kids are under and how important it is to them to succeed. It was also nice to see a depiction of the Jim Crowe South that wasn't all 'poor black people'. In this film, the black men and women are depicted as more successful and cultured than the white men and women, which was many times the case. These are educated people who are trying to continue that trend, even whilst surrounded by legions of hate filled adversaries. It was just nice to finally see the black community portrayed in a style more fitting than 'Depression-era negroes who can't read, write or fend for themselves'. We see too much of that in films and this was a nice change of pace.

As for performances, this is the most complete performance I have seen from Denzel Washington in a long time, and far more deserving of recognition than "American Gangster". Washington has a scene early in the film when he explains to one of his students what happened to a black man who was lynched that is absolutely powerful and utterly moving. Washington owns that scenes and turns his character into an inspiration right off the bat. Forest Whitaker also turns in yet another strong performance as the conflicted reverend. He gets a scene when his son shows up late one night that is absolutely riveting. And watching Washington and Whitaker share scenes together is fabulous, just fabulous - watching two greats go toe-to-toe. But, the younger actors really blow you away, especially Nate Parker as Henry Lowe and Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke. They have a nice chemistry together and truly do own all of the scenes they are in. Kudos to Washington for taking a chance on some undiscovered talent and then really pushing them to success. My one complaint is that the John Heard character is really painted as nothing more than a stereotype, the sweaty and determined racist who seems more like Strothers Martin from "Cool Hand Luke". I wish people would start developing those characters - just give us something more to hate.

On the whole, "The Great Debaters" was far better than I had prepared myself for, and much better than most of what I have seen Denzel Washington do lately. All of the buzz is surrounding a far weaker film, "American Gangster", when it should be surrounding this fine piece of American history that has gone unnoticed for far too long. Once we start forgetting these periods of history, we are doomed to repeat them. "The Great Debaters" has a few flaws, but nothing so massive that it spoils the enjoyment of the film. I certainly had a good time with the picture. I think this is also a good film for kids to see, maybe even in school - it paints a very realistic picture of the Jim Crowe South that is often ignored. It's not the best film of the year. But it's a good one.

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