Movie Review for The Great Debaters (2007)

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Review #593 of 365
Movie Review of The Great Debaters (2007) [PG-13] 123 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $14.50
Where Viewed: Harkins Ciné Capri at Northfield 18, Denver, CO
When Seen: 28 December 2007
Time: 6:40 pm
DVD Release Date: 13 May 2008 (click date to purchase or pre-order)
Film's Official WebsiteFilm's Trailer

Soundtrack: Download now from David Berger & The Sultans of Swing - The Great Debaters (Music from & Recorded for the Motion Picture) - or - order the CD below

Directed by: Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher)
Screenplay by: Robert Eisele (3: The Dale Earnhardt Story) Story by Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro based on article by Tony Scherman

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Denzel Washington (American Gangster) • Nate Parker (Pride) • Jurnee Smollett (Gridiron Gang) • Denzel Whitaker (The Ant Bully) • Jermaine Williams (The Comebacks) • Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) • Gina Ravera ("The Closer") • John Heard (The Guardian) • Kimberly Elise (Pride)

Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
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Click to read the spoiler points for The Great Debaters
It may have come as some what of a surprise when the Golden Globe Awards for the film year 2007 were announced, and Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters was listed among the seven films nominated for Best Picture in the Dramatic category. Upon seeing the film, though, all surprise should quickly dissipate. This is not only the right film for Mr. Washington—unlike his atypical performance and contributions to American Gangster—to act in, but also for him to direct. From start to end, this unlikely story about the first all-black college in the United States to ever be invited to debate the national collegiate debate champions, packs powerful performances and brilliant speeches that were honestly the first ones I've ever heard applauded during a movie along with receiving one "Amen!". Not only does the film introduce cross-examination, collegiate debate style to the masses, it serves well as a worthy reminder of the societal wrongs that can commence when groups of people presume superiority over others.

Denzel Washington portrays the Wiley College Professor of English, Melvin B. Tolson—better known at the time, despite all appearances in the film for his poetry. He's a brilliant writer, debater, and speaker, therefore he's also been the long-standing debate team coach. The film opens with him conducting his tryouts for the new year's team where some 50 students arrive at his home hoping to earn one of four, coveted spots (two debaters and two alternates). At a time in Texas history when, unfortunately, while progress had been made since the Civil War, it was still possible to find people of color being lynched by Anglo-saxon, as Tolson refers to them, mobs and the Sheriff in cahoots with farmers working to keep the share-croppers from ever unionizing, Prof. Tolson was secretly leading a dual life. By day, he was a bristly, self-assured, incredibly intelligent master of rhetoric; and, by night, he was secretly a spokesman of the people dressing the part and working tirelessly to organize the Texas sharecroppers—an activity that could have gotten him labeled a pot-stirrer at best and at worst a communist. From his tryouts, he selected Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), and James Farmer , Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). The fearless foursome, under his tutelage would become a mighty debate team that would go a long time undefeated in their first year together. Their winning streak captivated their small town and fellow students. Eventually, however, Tolson's extra-curricular activities and some problems within the team itself would take a toll before the team, ultimately would be invited to face the Crimson.

In only his second stint as a director, Denzel Washington proves himself as worthy of praise behind the camera as in front joining a few elite peers to have directed such powerful and award-nominated films in which they also acted namely Costner, Gibson, and Eastwood. The film looks terrific. Expansive and hopeful, the scenery and the infectious nature of the young cast whose characters collectively carry the hopes and dreams of so many on their backs, the film uplifts while it educates and illustrates. Nate Parker represents the distant philosopher who embraces his role as team captain while also concerning himself with the lovely Ms Booke. This latter concern comes with some hardship on his equally enamored though far junior teammate, the 14-year old James Farmer, Jr (Denzel Whitaker).

…Denzel Washington proves himself as worthy of praise behind the camera as in front…
Jurnee Smollett absolutely illuminates the screen with her performance as Samantha; and, though he is of no direct relation to either co-star, young Denzel Whitaker holds his own as the 14 going on 22-year old James Farmer, Jr., the son of the acclaimed James Farmer, Sr., the first black man to get his Ph.D. from Harvard and played to perfection by the recent Academy Award®-winning actor Forest Whitaker. Jermaine Williams's acting career finally gives him a role worthy of his talents as he plays the stuffy and most politically savvy member of the team, Hamilton Burgess. Gina Ravera and Kimberly Elise play the strong and charismatic spouses, Ruth Tolson and Pearl Farmer, respectively of Melvin and James, Sr., each adding her own sense of grace and style to the picture. John Heard plays the town's Sheriff effectively serving as both the chief antagonist while also working to preserve the peace. Overall, Denzel Washington asks his cast to follow his lead down a decisively rocky historical path, and then guides them to a spectacular conclusion of lasting impact.

While, on the one hand, it represents a tremendous national achievement that fewer and fewer people in the USA remember the times in the nation's history when racism, prejudice, and discrimination absolutely ruled the day; it's equally important on the other, to remind us all, regardless of racial heritage, what it felt like to live in such a place lest we ever cease striving to wipe out all forms of discrimination and prejudice in our nation and encourage it the world over.

…exemplifies the very highest quality of both pure filmmaking and using film has a vehicle to make a difference on the geopolitical stage…
The Great Debaters exemplifies the very highest quality of both pure filmmaking and using film has a vehicle to make a difference on the geopolitical stage via a candid look back at some of the more troubling times in America's history and those who worked against the grain.

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Other Projects Featuring The Great Debaters (2007)
Cast Members
Denzel WashingtonNate ParkerJurnee Smollett
Denzel WhitakerJermaine WilliamsForest Whitaker
Gina RaveraJohn HeardKimberly Elise
Denzel Washington
Robert Eisele
CD Soundtrack

Review-lite The Great Debaters (2007) [max of 150 words]
Starring and directed by Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters follows the story of the Wiley College Debate team coaches by Washington's character, Melvin Tolson—himself an accomplished poet and professor of English during a time in the USA's history when civil rights had still not caught up with the results of the Civil War. The film exemplifies the very highest quality of both pure filmmaking and using film has a vehicle to make a difference on the geopolitical stage via a candid look back at some of the more troubling times in America's history and those who worked against the grain. While similar in feeling to that of a sports team overcoming great odds film, I've never heard audience applause during a sports film like I heard after every stirring speech in The Great Debaters.

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