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January 2, 2008 > The Great Debaters - An inspirational call for learning

The Great Debaters - An inspirational call for learning

By Joe Samagond

"The Great Debaters" is inspired by a true story and chronicles the journey of Professor Melvin Tolson, a brilliant but volatile debate team coach who uses the power of words to guide a group of underdog students from a small African American college in the Deep South into a powerful elite debate team.

Denzel Washington plays Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. In 1935, he inspired students to form the school's first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship. Set in an era permeated by the worst ravages of the Jim Crow South, the movie lays out the experiences of these African-American college students as they learn the art of crafting an intelligent thought and supporting it with a substantive argument. The movie is produced by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films and is a story about self-actualization and the triumph of spirit, consistent with her broader TV campaigns.

The core of the team consists of James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the brilliant 14-year-old son of the serious college president (Forest Whitaker, no real-life relation), the rebellious Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and spirited Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first female member. The movie explores Tolson's training methods, which include some regimental exercises in which he drills his philosophy into their heads and lots of practicing of proper technique, and it breezes through their many competitions throughout the South. The specter of racism lingers throughout the movie; in the shame the younger James feels when he watches his father humiliated by two racist townspeople, the persistent threat of lynching and the refusal of white colleges to take an all black squad seriously.

There are a couple of major subplots, one involving Tolson's radical politics and the other the romance between Henry and Samantha that seem contrived. However, the movie as a whole is engaging. It rigidly adheres to the underdog success formula, and you should have no problem predicting the story's outcome. It works however because it is a movie that glamorizes studying hard and thinking on a deep level rather than the ability to throw touchdown passes or hit home runs. The screenplay illustrates the privilege of receiving an education and the many pleasures to be had from becoming more attuned with the world. The script is sprinkled with references to such literary figures as Hughes and Thoreau, apt socio-political speeches and allusions to important historical developments. The movie's script suffers however because the debate topics are completely aligned with the message of the movie which seems a bit too coincidental in a true story.

The movie does make a powerful emotional impact through honest, deeply felt acting by the entire cast: through the tough-love, leadership qualities of Denzel Washington's character, Mel Tolson; the arrogance that gives way to humility from Hamilton Burgess; the maturity gained by 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (who in real life went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the big three civil rights groups); the incipient feminist beliefs espoused by Samantha. Denzel Washington does a masterful job as director. The movie's technical qualities prove uniformly superb, with everything from production design to the characters' wardrobe appearing to have been lavished with care and attention to detail.

There is Hollywood ending, not because of script writing but because the movie is based on a true story. "The Great Debaters" re-illuminates a chapter in American race relations while proving the value of persistence in the face of ignorance and brutality. This is a tale of how education is the gift that nobody can take away from you. Its key message is that that the wisdom gained from learning, provides dignity to an individual and earns respect from others regardless of one's race or social class.

Rated: PG-13.
Runtime: 124 minutes.

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