Movie Review: The Great Debaters - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Movie Review: The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington starts in "The Great Debaters." Denzel Washington starts in "The Great Debaters."

01/01/2008

Since his star-making roles in Glory and Malcolm X, I have been waiting for a Denzel Washington vehicle to come along that would continue on the journey that this great African-American actor promised in those previous films, a journey of cinematic hope, honor, and inspiration in one man representing the power that black history can bring, to motivate not only black children but also motivate young people of all colors. I have been waiting for that vehicle, and with this new film I think I found it.

This time around where Denzel Washington shines is not with his expertise in front of the lens but now as a star twinkling behind it, lighting up the eyes of other young black actors. And, yes, it is my sincere opinion that Washington as a film director with this, his second movie to helm, joins the pantheon of important African-American filmmakers from Oscar Micheaux to Gordon Parks to Spike Lee, as well as the Olympus of major actors-turned-directors from Clint Eastwood to Robert Redford to Sean Penn whose works and film creations are always emotionally powerful and socially relevant.

THE GREAT DEBATERS is the story of the 1935 Wiley College debate team in eastern Texas. The action centers around Melvin B. Tolson, an English professor at the college who organizes and leads the debate team to prestige, while also mentoring a young student named James L. Farmer Jr. who is the son of another Wiley College professor and who later rises to become a very prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Bringing with him the same authority and charisma that he carries with hardly any effort, Washington plays Tolson, a teacher who on the first day of class stands atop a desk and recites a Langston Hughes poem. Tolson, himself a poet, gives an eloquence in elocution. Washington delivers Tolson's lines, not just as a good actor of memorization, but as a man playing one who commands every single statement he breathes and one who you know is a master of words who can certainly use them as weapons.

Tolson not only commands words when he speaks, but through his tone and his timbre he also demands that he be heard and that any and all attention be paid solely to him. As a teacher, that's what one would expect, but rumbling just below the surface, you sense that there's something more, a reason for his commanding voice, his power to orate, a reason that through three kids is witnessed.

Wiley College is located in a town that is a hotbed of segregation, racism and lynchings. Tolson is a Harlem Renaissance contemporary. He talks of a revolution up in the North, the literary and artistic movement by blacks who migrated, ill-content with new conditions who felt a need to express themselves. While the movement sprang from African-Americans in more liberal, urban areas where some blacks were more comfortable, the real revolution was taking place in the conservative, rural areas like that of east Texas where blacks weren't as comfortable.

Tolson, at one point, even describes a lynching to which he bore a first-hand account, pronouncing in detail how the parts of the lynching victims were tossed here and there. Yet, it's not all rhetoric. Washington, beaming brightly both in front of and from behind the camera shows us the lynchings, shows us the outright racism, prevalent in this town, and shows us the bigotries and the fears. Through a chilling performance by John Heard ("Home Alone" and "Big") who plays the town sheriff investigating the unionization of sharecroppers, you get that this isn't just ill-content. You get there's danger fully present.

Yet, it's all the more striking when you see exactly against what that danger is pitted. The three young black actors who play Tolson's students, Nate Parker ("Pride"), Jurnee Smollett ("Eve's Bayou" and "Roll Bounce"), and Denzel Whitaker ("Training Day"), who by the way anchor this film with absolute aplomb and deference, portray these three most brilliant and most intelligent students that one could hope to meet.

Playing characters ranging in ages as low as 14, these students are some of the most well-read, literate, keen college-goers ever. Respectively, there's Henry, Samantha and James, three black children who all have Tolson for a teacher and who all try out for Tolson's debate team. At will, any one of them can quote any body from James Joyce to Teddy Roosevelt to W.E.B. DuBois to Henry David Thoreau solely from the top of the their heads. And, no, these kids aren't just memorization machines. They're debaters in every sense. They understand nuances. They challenge knowledge. They opine. They analyze. They affirm. They negate. They argue. They resolve. They are the title of this movie.

Through a well reasoned and well versed original screenplay by writer Robert Eisele, the three debaters touch upon topics, or propositions that resonate during their lives in the 1930s like crime, integration, and civil disobedience but also topics that resonate in our lives here in the 2000s. You'd think there's no connection, no bridge to the past and its problems, but listening to the arguments in this script, you see, it rings so clearly that there is.

But, it's not one boring debate after another here. The story is peppered with moments of great tension and drama. The debates become merely accentuation points to the rush that are these people's lives. Tolson's politics fighting the status quo versus James Farmer's father's strict measures to stay in line are narrative thrusts that keep the film interesting in between debates, which are far from boring. Washington, along with his cameraman and editor, embraces techniques to keep the debates lively even though it's not necessary. The strength of the three young acting performances in the debating scenes are enough to move you to applause. They're genuinely heartfelt.

The only negative criticism that I can make is that there isn't enough of Forest Whitaker. Whitaker has a very good role as James Farmer's father, a deacon and very religious man who keeps his son on a very short leash and who has some very old school ideas about things but who recognizes the racism, but who like Booker T. Washington, didn't want to antagonize whites but wanted merely to focus on education and vocation. Whitaker, a great actor who recently won the Oscar, is short-changed.

There is one amazing scene that has Whitaker's character arguing with Washington's, and when you have two Oscar winners in the same movie, you want to see them acting together. There were more opportunities here than in "American Gangster," which was Washington's film right before this one that had him mano-a-mano with fellow Oscar winner Russell Crowe. Yet, the criticism is the same. You don't see enough of them together. They're separated for the most part. In the one scene where they do act face to face, it's spectacular, but it's all you get. You yearn for more of it and on that front you're left unsatisfied.

But, that is only a minor bone of contention when you weigh it against the powerful story you get in its place that's well-photographed and very well-acted. Spotlighting a footnote in history, little known to even most blacks, this ends up being a perfect rendition of a piece of the past that all people should know.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images and brief sexuality
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.

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