The Great Debaters (2007)
The Great Debaters (2007)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 2007 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Denzel Washington Actors: Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forest Whitaker, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, Devyn Tyler




uperb acting, witty dialogue, significant historical events, and powerful moral messages easily earn Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters” a spot among the year’s best movies. Though the classic underdog formula provides a somewhat predictable patterning, along with the basis on real people and a true story that would surely elude theatrical adaptation if it wasn’t unusually triumphant, it’s nevertheless a powerful story. Plenty of intricate subplots and the stirring subjects of racism, radicals, and equality ensure a feel-good event certain to appeal to critics and general audiences alike.

Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a professor at Wiley College in Texas in 1935. As he attempts to unify the local sharecroppers with his strong public speaking abilities and progressive political views, he also coaches his school’s debate team, which he personally hand-picks each year. The current team consists of Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first woman ever to make the cut; Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a rebellious and outspoken student who spends most of his time on an isolated lake or at local parties; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a 14 year-old student who worries about the biased behaviors he constantly witnesses. As the Wiley group sets out to become the first colored debate team to compete against white schools, they manage to go undefeated during their first nine matches – leading to an invitation from Harvard to challenge its own prestigious squad. But racism, disquietude within the group, and disagreements with Tolson and his civics hinder their every step toward making history.

Once again the acting is surpassing, especially from Denzel Washington, who, if he wasn’t already likely to receive recognition for his role in “American Gangster,” might be earmarked for this performance too. Infused with humor, sarcasm, and a very astute way with words, the debate team coach is awe-inspiring in every scene, whether he’s talking politics with James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) or bandying with his cocky proteges. Whitaker also has an outstanding supporting role as the father who, while proud and intelligent, recognizes the detrimental effect of racism and struggles to keep his family from harm, even if it means enduring humiliation.

The multilayered acts of violence explored by “The Great Debaters” generate its greatest subplots, some of which essentially overshadow the students’ goals of debating against Harvard. Dealing with the many injustices of the ‘30s fuels Henry, Samantha, and Farmer Jr. to excel in their fortes, but it affects each character differently: Farmer struggles over misinterpreting acceptable actions of upholding peace; Henry pretends to bear the viewing of a burning, lynched body, but cracks under the tormenting imagery; and Samantha battles her feelings for Henry and his mistakes with liquor. It’s a sticky time and a complex situation for all involved, especially when Tolson’s rigorous political methods begin to creep into his professional life. Explaining that slave owners would take the mind and leave the body of their subservient prisoners to make sure they didn’t rebel, Tolson instills the idea that, as a teacher, it is his mission to help them take back their minds – perhaps even at costs contradictory to their ethics.

Additional complications include a love triangle, which arises from Farmer Jr.’s childish crush on Samantha, while she is in turn wooed by the independent Henry Lowe. Plenty of comedy is also sparked from their interactions, particularly when Farmer daydreams during a dance sequence. But tragedy also surfaces when Henry reasons with alcohol abuse and Farmer broils with jealousy.

An excellent underdog story, “The Great Debaters” handles a crowd-pleasing formula smartly enough that even the artful technicalities of debating (a cinematic event in any picture) can complement the striking themes of injustice and achievement in the face of adversity. And its qualities as a biographical depiction of major strides in civil parity similarly balances education with entertainment. Though director Washington must juggle a few predictable moments, none of them are markedly flawed, proving that the veteran actor is just as masterly behind the camera as he is in front of it.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10