They Too, Are America -- America's Best
PopcornReel.com Movie Review: "The Great Debaters"
By Omar P.L. Moore/December 25, 2007
Denzel Washington tells a beautiful story of the 1935 debate team at the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and hits a grand slam home run. "The Great Debaters" is inspirational, stirring and triumphant, and inspired by the true story of Wiley's black debaters, who took on all comers and defeated each and every one of them. They would face the top debate school in the country -- the University of Southern California's white debaters. In the film USC has been changed to the more prestigious-sounding Harvard, and that school's outstanding campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Denzel Washington has a steady, assured hand directing "Debaters", of which Oprah Winfrey was one of the producers, and sets time, place and atmosphere flawlessly. The heat of racism and violence. The courageous debaters who are put to the test. And Mel Tolson, the English teacher who was more complex than some thought, guided Wiley's debate teams to unparalleled success.
The film combines a coming-of-age tale in the racist 1930's American South with a story of mentorship, courage and leadership, featuring strong performances from Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr., who would go on to lead the Freedom Rides as part of the Civil Rights Movement; Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke and especially Nate Parker, who is exceptional as Henry Lowe, a tormented and complex figure. Mr. Parker's work deserves recognition in the supporting nominations for Oscar in just about a month's time. James Jr., Samantha and Henry are debaters who fuel life and power into their unassailable arguments while giving a voice to themselves amidst a hostile climate. Mr. Washington directs "Debaters" so well it is as if he has been directing for 25 years, not acting for that long. He lets this story unfold at a leisurely pace, establishing an authentic sense of time and place. "The Great Debaters" has a depth of color, life and warmth, and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot (who worked with Mr. Washington on his directing debut film "Antwone Fisher") crafts such beautiful and exquisite visions, particularly in a scene between Samantha and Henry, which is not just visually sumptuous but also captures the film's most tender moment.
In addition to the young actors, the veterans excel, with Forest Whitaker (no relation to Denzel Whitaker) playing the younger Whitaker's father James Farmer, Sr., and Denzel Washington stepping in front of the camera to play Mr. Tolson. Mr. Whitaker gives the senior preacher man an alternating fire and reserved disposition and the newly-minted Oscar winner takes care not to make Farmer Senior into a domineering behemoth, although as a preacher Mr. Whitaker gets his point across to his onscreen son, whom he is not happy with for being selected to the debate team. Mr. Washington gives a Mel Tolson a command and grandeur that reminds one of some of the onscreen roles that defined Sidney Poitier's finest hour in American cinema. Indeed, early on when Tolson recites the Langston Hughes line "I am the darker brother. I too, am America!", he looks and sounds like Mr. Poitier more than ever, most notably in intonation. One would be forgiven by saying that there are scenes with the director here -- specifically those taking place in the classroom -- that in roundabout ways remind one of "To Sir, With Love", except on American shores. Tolson possesses a vulnerability in a few moments as well, something that has not necessarily been exhibited by Mr. Washington too often in recent roles -- or at least in a long time. Directing "The Great Debaters" doesn't at all compromise Mr. Washington's ability to deliver another compelling onscreen performance.
When watching "The Great Debaters" in its methodical and straightforward build-up you are fairly confident of its outcome, yet it's a journey that has several jarring moments to remind us that academic excellence and brilliance on the part of Wiley's gentlemen and lady didn't occur in a vacuum. Mr. Washington displays his directing influences, including filmmakers like Spike Lee, who has directed him four times ("Mo' Better Blues", "Malcolm X", "He Got Game", "Inside Man".) One scene involving Forest Whitaker in a police precinct seems to directly reference the moment in "Malcolm X" where Mr. Washington as Malcolm X visits a police precinct and points outside to a throng of hundreds of protesters. Mr. Washington has learned well, and as in "Antwone Fisher" cultivates a pedestrian style that allows an audience to be drawn in by the story and not distracted by special effects or anything ancillary. The screenplay by Robert Eisele, a story inspired by the true story of Wiley's debaters, takes licenses here and there but is otherwise a solid mix of drama, discovery, and debate. The story's pitch changes with its moments of occasional melodrama, but remains firmly on track to be an enriching, enjoyable and valuable experience for the entire family.
Most importantly, "The Great Debaters" signifies a passing of the torch to a new generation of young black actors in Whitaker, Smollett and Parker, who will surely (or hopefully) get more roles as a result of this film. Mr. Washington is their onscreen mentor but has clearly mentored this special trio well behind the camera and off-screen in the direction of future greatness.
"The Great Debaters" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality. The film also stars Elise Neal, Gina Ravera and John Heard.
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