Great Debaters, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's one thing to tell people about the wounds in the fabric of this country that the Civil Rights movement attempted to repair; it's another thing to show them. Unfortunately, too many films made about racism during the first two-thirds of the 20th Century in America lose power on two grounds: a tendency to sermonize and an unwillingness to show the true ugliness of what went on. Neither of those faults plagues The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington's chronicle of the rise of a debating team from a small black Texas college during the 1930s. By highlighting themes of individual achievement against a daunting backdrop, Washington provides heroes who can be admired irrespective of their race, even though skin color is a huge part of the story. More significantly, he does not shy from showing the darkest aspects of human nature. A scene in The Great Debaters is designed to shock and horrify, and it succeeds in doing so. But it is in no way exploitative; it is necessary to the understanding of the characters and their motivations, and to coming to grips with elements of the social fabric that are too often softened for mass consumption. Washington makes it evident that racism can be more ghastly than calling someone degrading names.

The movie, which is based on a true story but does not trumpet that fact in an opening caption, takes place on the campus of Wiley College during 1935. Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a social activist and English professor who forms a debate team. His initial goals are modest: face-off against other black colleges. But when the team goes on an undefeated run that includes toppling one of the best black debating teams in the country, he sets his sights higher and challenges National Champion Harvard (standing in for the historical champion, USC). If Harvard agrees to the contest, it will be the first time the debating team from a black college will face off against a National Champion.

Tolson's team is comprised of four very different individuals. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is s brash, outspoken young man whose years of reading have given him a wealth of knowledge about all topics. Samantha Brooke (the fiery Jurnee Smollett) is the only woman on the team - she believes the experience will serve her well as she struggles to become the third female black attorney in Texas. James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is a 14-year old prodigy whose strict work ethic is handed down from his father (Forrest Whitaker), a preacher and professor at Wiley. Finally, Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is a conservative young man who shys away from controversy away from the debating stage. The movie mixes the interaction of these characters with each other and their families with their debating success and their struggles to attain a measure of fairness in a country where little is to be found.

The Great Debaters does an excellent job forming a bond between the characters and the audience. These are not perfect individuals; they are flawed, like all human beings, but that doesn't prevent audiences from admiring them, especially considering the adversity that must be overcome. There are also no overarching villains (John Heard plays a racist sheriff but he's only in a few scenes). Instead, we see how the poisonous social climate of the south warps the perspectives and actions of people. James must watch his proud father abase himself in front of a white man to avoid being shot. The debaters, while on a road trip with Mr. Tolson, inadvertently stumble into a lynching. The event is presented with sickening verisimilitude. The ways in which each of the characters react to this incident is a fascinating study in human nature.

The debating sequences are effectively presented. In keeping with Tolson's description of them as a "blood sport," they are impassioned and forceful with words being used as weapons. The debates touch on issues of race, civil rights, and civil disobedience. All four students are given opportunities to shine and each has at least one instance - either on stage or away from it - when their resolve cracks. There is a scene near the end when the team gazes with awe upon the grand setting where the final contest will take place that will remind some viewers of a similar moment in Hoosiers when the players look at the arena where their championship battle will occur.

Washington is content to simmer in the background, making it possible that he could be nominated for three Oscars next year (Best Actor for American Gangster and Best Supporting Actor/Director for this film). Fellow Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker also fills a secondary part. Three young actors make impressions. Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker both come to this movie with strong TV backgrounds. This is Nate Parker's second period piece dealing with racism. In Pride, he was a swimmer struggling for equality under the tutelage of Terrence Howard. (Pride is an example of a film that falls into both traps I identified at the top of this review.)

The Great Debaters is ultimately an uplifting movie because it is about triumph. But there are harrowing moments along the way. The journey is affecting and honest without feeling manipulative and the screenplay and direction are handled with care and sensitivity for the subject matter. This is one of the better movies in recent years to address issues of racial inequality and the way in which individuals overcome them.

Great Debaters, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1