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  The Great Debaters

Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, J.D. Evermore

Directed by: Denzel Washington

Produced by: Kate Forte, Todd Black, Joe Roth, Oprah Winfrey

Written by: Robert Eisele (screenplay & story), Jeffrey Porro (story)

Distributor: MGM


     The Great Debaters tells the (of course) true story of the 1935 Wiley College Debate Team, which consisted of four black students who dared to thrive academically in a time of extreme racial tension in America. The team was headed by Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington, who also directs the film), a hardworking professor at Wiley suspected of being an active communist by many of the residents of the school’s surrounding town of Marshall, Texas. (Tolson was actually a very vocal advocate of sharecroppers’ unions and a poet in the Harlem Renaissance, but he never let his personal life or political views enter the classroom.) Tolson cultivated the team with modest intentions, only seeking victories over other black colleges, Howard the most respected among them. But when his team began to receive national recognition, its existence became a hot-button issue for many racist Americans. Fighting onward, Tolson and his students won nearly every match they took part in, eventually earning the chance to beat the national-champion, USC (replaced by Harvard-Crimson in the film, presumably to make the honor seem even more monumental).

     The movie tells a highly conventional Underdog Story, but critic Roger Ebert reminds us that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In his review, Ebert writes: “…some critics have complained that [The Great Debaters] follows the formula of all sports movies by leading up, through great adversity, to a victory in the end. So it does. How many sports movies, or movies about underdogs competing in any way, have you seen that end in defeat? It is human nature to seek inspiration in victory, and this is a film that is affirming and inspiring and recreates the stories of a remarkable team and its coach.” For the most part, I agree with him. After all, what would The Great Debaters have said about racial progress if it had chosen to tell a less-optimistic story about the same theme? Unfortunately, however, there is a separate problem with the movie’s embrace of convention that Ebert overlooks: one that concerns its style, not its content. Director Washington makes the story feel more tired than it really is by presenting it in the same fashion as those like it, with plenty of syrupy slow-motion shots and sentimental background-music to boot. Had he merely assembled The Great Debaters in a more atypical way and kept the central message the same, the movie could’ve been a more provocative and more powerful film on the whole.

     Then again, perhaps I’m taking the largely-successful picture for granted by criticizing it at all. In truth, The Great Debatersrepresents a rarity in that it succeeds in embracing such a derivative formula. There are, indeed, many elements of great, often very fresh work here. Namely, Forest Whitaker’s interpretation of a distanced intellectual who is both one of Tolson’s colleagues at Wiley and the father of the debate team’s researcher is phenomenal. The performance stands apart from all of the conventions of The Great Debaters, offering an entirely different take on a father-figure than this type of film usually does but satisfying just the same. In addition, Washington’s bold, heroic depiction of Tolson is quite welcome. Despite living in a desperate time in America when it would’ve been all too tempting to affect students by preaching his own politics to them, Tolson resists the urge. Reflecting upon this in today’s educational environment, in which public schoolteachers almost uniformly brainwash kids with far-left doctrine, makes the notion especially admirable.

     Cliché as its story and style may seem, The Great Debaters is nonetheless a triumphant viewing experience. I have merely touched on what makes the picture the special one that it is in this review, but to dwell on all of its specific joys would only spoil them. In short, I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone support The Great Debaters for its ripe historical value, nuanced performances, and welcome ability to uplift the viewer’s spirits. What an appreciable effort this is.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.29.2007

Screened on: 12.26.2007 at the Regal Escondido 16 in Escondido, CA.


The Great Debaters is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes.

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