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The Great Debaters (A Movie Review)

The Great Debaters

The Great Debaters


Starring Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forrest Whitaker, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, Devyn Tyler and Trenton McClain Boyd.

Screenplay by Robert Eisele.

Directed by Denzel Washington.

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  123 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

It is probably not a coincidence that the poster for Denzel Washington’s latest film, The Great Debaters – about a teacher who brings out the best in his poor small-town students – seems to be modeled simply after classic Sidney Poitier one sheets like Blackboard Jungle, In the Heat of the Night or To Sir, With Love.

Though the film actually takes place decades before the Poitier classics were made, it is reminiscent of them in tone and content.  This is an old-fashioned tale of smart people overcoming overwhelming odds and unfair prejudices to fly higher than they even imagined that they could reach.  And it is mostly true.

Of course, things are kind of stacked in the Wiley College debate team’s favor.  The Great Debaters does take a somewhat rose-colored glasses look at this true story.  Not saying that the story is not worthy or that what the individuals achieved was not great.  However, the story is given a Hollywood gloss to assure that we embrace them.

The Great Debaters tells the story of the Wiley College debate team in 1935.  In the midst of the Jim Crow south, a debate team made up of African Americans was able – through eloquence and intelligence – to make such an academic impression that they finally became the first college to break the color barrier.

However, the real Wiley College debate team never went to Harvard – which is only the entire thrust of the movie.  In real life they went to the University of Southern California (USC) – a nice, important, mainstream university, certainly, but not quite the hallowed halls of academia.

Also, the script assures that the Wiley debate team conveniently always gets to argue the politically and morally correct point-of-view on all subjects, never once being forced into the role of devil’s advocate – like all of their opponents are required to throughout the storyline.

And finally, when they do arrive at Harvard, they are forced to use their own words and thoughts, not just the script of their Professor – social advocate and future poet Melvin Tolson (played with charming academic stiffness by Denzel Washington.).

The students complain when they are forced to come up with their own arguments – however it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Harvard insists on this.  In fact, it was disappointing to me that they did not do it the whole time.  I’m an outsider to the debating world, so maybe that is how it is done, it just seemed wrong somehow.

Still, even if it is a slightly white-washed version of the truth, The Great Debaters is an important story to tell and told with passion.

The acting – particularly Forest Whitaker as a preacher father, Nate Parker as the handsome and suave debater and Denzel Whitaker (who is not related to either Forest Whitaker or Denzel Washington – but whose parents may have been fans) as the young, shy prodigal student – shines through with fierce elegance.

The Great Debaters takes many of the staples of the sports inspirational film (in fact Parker, as good as he was, essentially played the same role in last year’s swimming movie Pride) and gives them an academic twist.  This can only be a good thing in a world which is getting increasingly dumbed down.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 4, 2008.

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