Review: The Great Debaters
Plot: During the thirties, a debating team from the historically black Wiley College overcomes racism and defies segregation to challenge Harvard University to a historic debate. Based on a true story.
Review: THE GREAT DEBATERS is obviously a passion project for writer/ star Denzel Washington- and it shows onscreen. While I enjoyed ANTOINE FISHER- his last turn behind the camera, I think this film is a big leap forward for Washington as a filmmaker. He's definitely got a great story to tell. There really was a debating team at Wiley College in 1935, and they did make history by being the first black team to participate in an inter-racial debate with a rival university. The film does take a few artistic liberties, as it portrays them debating Harvard, when in fact they debated the University of Southern California.
Alas, this is a Hollywood film- so there you go... I doubt Washington or producer Oprah Winfrey were intending to produce a documentary, so you can forgive them a few embellishments. Overall though, this is a very inspiring film, and great family fare for the X-Mas holiday. It's quite sobering to realize that it was not that long ago that learning institutions in the U.S were strictly segregated, racism was rampant, and in the south lynch mobs were common. For a young black scholar, obtaining a quality education was no easy task- and it's truly inspiring that people like those portrayed in this film were able to overcome the numerous obstacles that stood in their way and excel in every aspect of their lives.
Washington has assembled a first rate cast for his film- with three relative newcomers playing the debaters of the title. Of the three, only young Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker- who plays his father in the film) as James Farmer jr. plays one of the actual debaters, with Jurnee Smollett & Nate Parker playing slightly fictionalized composite characters. Of the three, Nate Parker- as the somewhat morally flawed but gifted lead debater, Henry Lowe, is the standout. Parker's got a great presence onscreen, and he brings the same intensity to his role that Washington himself brought to his early roles in A SOLDIER'S STORY, and GLORY. Expect big things from Parker in the next few years.
Washington himself also has a major role, as Melvin B. Tolson- the debate team coach, who not only actually existed, but later in life became an accomplished poet & scholar. In 1947 he was even named the poet laureate of Liberia. Washington is a good fit in this role, as it falls in line with the type of moral, upstanding characters he usually plays (a recent exception being his work as the drug dealing Frank Lucas in AMERICAN GANGSTER). To his credit, Washington takes a back seat in the film, letting his young co-stars dominate the proceedings.
Probably the only complaint that I have about THE GREAT DEBATERS is that at times it felt a bit candy coated- which I'm sure was more a commercial decision than an artistic one. Sometimes I felt that Washington was holding back on some of the grittier aspects of the story in order to make it more palatable to a wider audience. Basically, in terms of on-screen depictions of racism this is more REMEMBER THE TITANS than MISSISSIPPI BURNING. I also found the musical score a little too saccharine for my taste, and I wish they had used more period music.
While I wouldn't call this film Oscar worthy, it is nonetheless very entertaining. I'd definitely recommend it to families looking for something with a little more substance than something like NATIONAL TREASURE 2.
My Rating: 7.5/10
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