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The Great Debaters Movie Review


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Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either), The Great Debaters serves as a pleasant reminder that even in the land of formulaic, mainstream Hollywood, studio films occasionally get served up without the usual dollops of melodrama and cliche.

This is especially unusual in the triumph-over-adversity genre — and even more unusual when the setting is 1930s Texas, the predominant tone is sepia and the producer is Oprah Winfrey.

And yet, perhaps because of the sheer talent involved, this effort comes across as smart and genuine.

Washington, who makes his directorial debut here, stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a real-life poet and professor who became a renowned civil rights leader and led the debate team of Wiley College, an all-black school in the South. The members consisted of Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams).

After beating the teams at all the other black colleges, they were invited to compete against a white team at the University of South Carolina — in the film it’s changed to Harvard — with this match providing the ultimate battle of wit and rhetoric.

In the opening sequence, we see James’s father, the minister James Farmer Sr. (Whitaker senior) telling his congregation that they must do what they have to do, in order to do what they want to do. It’s a running theme, with the characters having to make crucial decisions every step of the way about whether they should react to something or let it slide, whether they should fight with their fists or with their words, and often it’s an unfortunate catch-22.

As well, as the first woman ever chosen for Wiley’s debate team, Samantha in particular must confront almost twice the prejudice, while also dealing with the romantic advances, then betrayals, of Henry. Then James, too, finds himself enamoured with her, which complicates things further, though not as far as Tolson’s secret involvement with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

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