The Great Debaters

"OK"

The Great Debaters Review


Told with the against-all-odds mentality reserved for most underdog tales, Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters -- inspired by a true story -- recounts how a plucky debate team from all-black Wiley College systematically defeated anyone who dared oppose them until they earned an impossible title shot against the scholars of Harvard University.

Washington, who also directs, plays Melvin Tolson, a hard-nosed instructor who, in 1935, coaches his co-ed team through racially motivated obstacles while simultaneously protecting a secret that threatens to derail his team's historic run. A self-righteous leader, Tolson fills his vessels with the knowledge that a proper education is their lone ticket to a balanced life. The school's president, played with stubborn dignity by Forest Whitaker, echoes this credo in quiet scenes with his son, who happens to be on Tolson's team. "We do what we have to do," the educator exclaims, "so we can do what we want to do." Part of Tolson's method is to drill mantras into his debaters' skulls. The judge is God. Their opponents do not matter. And the only way they will succeed is by telling the truth.

It's great advice, though Washington ignores it. Would it bother you to learn that the Wiley College debate team never beat Harvard? How about the fact that they never even competed against them? Wiley's biggest win in 1935 was against the University of Southern California, though Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele swap in the Ivy Leaguers for reasons that are unclear (and unnecessary). Such a revelation -- in my opinion -- cuts Debaters off at the knees, devaluing the last third of the film, where Tolson's protégés must think on their feet to prove they belong on the Cambridge stage, holding court with Harvard's top arguers. The phrase "inspired by" may buy a filmmaker creative leeway, but it's at the cost of credibility with an audience.

It's unfortunate, because the rest of Debaters can be inspirational. Washington's direction is pedestrian, but his fiery performance injects spitfire into the conventional teacher-student formula. Eisele makes sure Tolson always has a speech at the ready, and some of them are even good. Washington's passion infects his young co-stars, who are uniformly impressive. Young Denzel Whitaker -- who, believe it nor not, is related to neither Denzel Washington nor Forest Whitaker -- stands out from Tolson's trio. He plays James Farmer Jr., the sympathetic son of the school's president and the third leg in a disproportioned love triangle that includes fellow debaters Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker). During the film's finest moments, the oft-broken-hearted teenager discovers the strength to persevere, learning the true power behind the right words spoken at the right time. His inspiring delivery swells from within, and that's a fact that can't be debated.

He'll talk your ear off.



The Great Debaters

Facts and Figures

Run time: 126 mins

In Theaters: Tuesday 25th December 2007

Box Office Worldwide: $30.2M

Budget: $15M

Production compaines: The Weinstein Company

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5

IMDB: 7.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: as Melvin B. Tolson, as Samantha Booke, as Henry Lowe, as Dr. James Farmer Sr., as James Farmer Jr., as Pearl Farmer, as Hamilton Burgess, as Ruth Tolson, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Samantha Booke (as Jurnee Smollett), as Sheriff Dozier, Devyn A. Tyler as Helen Farmer (as Devyn Tyler), Trenton McClain Boyd as Nathaniel Farmer, Ritchie Montgomery as Deputy, Jackson Walker as Pig Owner, Tim Parati as Pig Farmer, Robert X. Golphin as Dunbar Reed, Justice Leak as Harland Osbourne, Glen Powell as Harvard Debater #1 (as Glen Powell Jr.), Brad Watkins as Harvard Debater #2, Brian Smiar as Harvard Dean, Damien Leake as Wilson, Voltaire Sterling as Paul Quinn Debater #1 (as Voltaire Rico Sterling), Stephen Rider as Paul Quinn Debater #2, Gordon Danniels as Paul Quinn Debate Judge, Donny Boaz as Oklahoma City College Debater #1, Samuel Elliott Whisnant as Oklahoma City College Debater #2 (as Sam Whisnant), Bonnie Johnson as Dr. Jennings, Charissa Allen as Benita, as Trudell, Gary Mathis as Enormous Man, as Samuel, Fahnlohnee R. Harris as Clementine (as Fahnlohnee Harris), Harold Evans as William Taylor (as Harold X. Evans), J.D. Evermore as Captain Wainwright, Sharon Jones as Lila, Kelvin Payton as Joseph, Southey Blanton as White Labor Organizer, Michael Mattison as White Sharecropper #1, Jeff Braun as White Sharecropper #2, Milton R. Gipson as Prairie View Professor, Frank Ridley as Security Guard, Jeremiah Kissel as Radio Announcer at Harvard Debate, Jack Radosta as White Man at Lynching, Marcus Lyle Brown as Howard Debater #1, Alvin Youngblood Hart as Juke Joint Musician #1 (as Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart), Dom Flemons as Juke Joint Musician #2 (as Dominique Flemons), Dom Flemons as Juke Joint Musician #3, Rhiannon Giddens as Juke Joint Musician #4, Ahmad Powell as Fisk Professor

Also starring: , ,

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

Contactmusic 2017 Exclusive

New Movies

Fences Movie Review

Fences Movie Review

After winning Tony Awards on Broadway, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reteam for a film...

The Lego Batman Movie Movie Review

The Lego Batman Movie Movie Review

A spin-off from 2014's awesome The Lego Movie, this raucously paced action-comedy is proof that...

The Space Between Us Movie Review

The Space Between Us Movie Review

While the premise of this movie makes it look like a sci-fi adventure, the truth...

Toni Erdmann Movie Review

Toni Erdmann Movie Review

On paper, the idea of a two-hour 40-minute German comedy may not seem very promising,...

Gold Movie Review

Gold Movie Review

Based on a true story, this lively and sometimes outrageous adventure is packed with twists...

Loving Movie Review

Loving Movie Review

While this film tackles a huge issue in the history of race relations in America,...

T2 Trainspotting Movie Review

T2 Trainspotting Movie Review

It's been 20 years since we last saw four freewheeling young junkies from Edinburgh spiral...

Advertisement
Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review

Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review

Based on an astounding true story, this battlefield drama mixes warm emotion with intense action...

Sing Movie Review

Sing Movie Review

The quality of the animation in this musical comedy may not be up to Pixar...

Jackie Movie Review

Jackie Movie Review

Rather than make a standard biopic about the most famous First Lady in American history,...

Split Movie Review

Split Movie Review

After a few badly received sci-fi blockbusters, M. Night Shyamalan returned to his earthier style...

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

It's been 15 years since Vin Diesel walked away from his XXX role, killing off...

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

This may not be the cheeriest movie of the season, but it's so skilfully written,...

Live By Night Movie Review

Live By Night Movie Review

Ben Affleck launched his directing career 10 years ago with his film of Dennis Lehane's...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.