Anthony's Film Review

The Great Debaters (2007)

The inspirational story of an all-black college debate team rising to the challenge...

The Great Debaters is a movie I really enjoyed for many reasons. It features two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington along with a fine supporting cast. The writing is crisp, giving us an engaging story and unforgettable dialogue. Then there are the inspirational messages and the historical context that, together, remind us of the issues of the past and how far we've moved on from them. Honestly, I had not expected this movie to be so elaborately put together. Now that I've been impressed by it, allow me to break it down and explain why this movie is worth seeing.

The story begins in the year 1935 at Wiley College, an all-black college in Marshall, Texas. Denzel Washington is Melvin Tolson, a professor at Wiley College who puts together a debate team for the school. His students are all brilliant and intelligent, able to recite numerous facts from history and other subjects. Right away, all of these characters are very admirable. This is definitely clear in the scene where Tolson holds a tryout for the debate team. Tolson coaches in a direct and firm manner while his students quickly learn what it takes to deliver rhetorical arguments. It's as if these students are already sharp weapons to begin with, rather than dull weapons that need a whole lot of sharpening.

With that, Tolson picks out the four members of the debate team: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams); Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the sole woman on the team; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a gifted 14-year-old boy. From there, the movie presents scenes in which this team discusses debate strategies and does research before participating in debate events with other black colleges. I can easily describe this plot with one word: engaging.

In between the debate moments are scenes of other situations. Henry slowly falls in love with Samantha. James discovers that Tolson is secretly involved with a farmers' union, which was generally frowned upon in the 1930s. James and his family, including his father James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker, no relation to Denzel Whitaker), find themselves in a tense situation when their car accidentally collides with a white farmer's pig. Even more intense is when the debate team, while driving down a road at night, run into a lynch mob that had just burned someone on a cross. I liked these scenes not just because they were interesting, but also because they weren't a distraction from the debate scenes.

In fact, I think those seemingly side moments add to the inspirational tone of the movie, because they give the characters a real challenge to overcome: racial prejudice. Halfway through the movie, Wiley College's debate team, having beaten debate teams at many competing black colleges, go up against a white college debate team for the first time. Their debate is a rather spirited one, especially as the topic of the debate is racial integration versus segregation of universities. From there, Wiley College gets even more invitations to debate with white colleges, including the ultimate challenge of facing Harvard University.

The Great Debaters may be a bit predictable, especially in the final scene, and may have a few historical inaccuracies. But those are only minor things. Overall, the movie delivers a great story that appeals to everyone, regardless of race. Denzel Washington does another fine job as an actor, not to mention as a director here. Everyone else in the cast can certainly feel proud about being part of this movie. You know who else should be proud? Oprah Winfrey. She is actually one of the producers for The Great Debaters, which is appropriate given how her work tends to inspire others. So with all of this, I am giving this movie very high marks.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about The Great Debaters, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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