The Great Debaters
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86 of 89 people found the following review helpful
`The Great Debaters' offers what great movie viewing is all about. Based on a true story, the film takes us to Wiley, an African-American Methodist college in Texas during the Depression in 1935. Inspiring, harrowing, and uplifting, the film gives proper transcendence especially during a time and place that didn't offer many breaks.

We are first introduced to Professor Polson (Denzel Washington), a tenacious idealist and poet. As professor at Wiley and debate coach, he hardly yields on any of his principles. Inspired by the man who is named for the heinous lynching, Polson tells his debate recruits that it was in Lynch's best interests to keep Black people, "Physically strong, but psychologically weak." It is with this explanation that we understand his zealous approach to his debate team, and why he makes their training so rigorous.

Entering the field are forty-five tryouts, of which, only four will be selected: two representatives and two alternates. Of the three who make it, we get to know Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) a charismatic and bright figurehead who is easily distracted by beautiful women and hard liquor. Joining him are Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first young woman to join the debate team, and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) forever young at age 14, but an ever resourceful scholar and son of a minister, James Farmer, Sr. (Forrest Whitaker). [No real life relations.] As he notices a romance start to blossom between his teammates, his resentment grows. As the one who researches many of the arguments Henry and Samantha provide on the podium, he is put on the sidelines both in terms of the limelight and the love light.

As you might guess, Wiley enjoys a certain amount of success, and the price of success is opposition. Polson spends a great deal of his time and rhetorical talent organizing a sharecroppers' union, much to the chagrin of Sheriff Dozier (John Heard) who won't have unrest in his sleepy Texas town. In one scene the Farmer family is making a trek by car on a rural country road as they pass a poor white farm. The children who seem so mischievous run alongside the car as they pass along, unaccustomed to seeing a "Negro" with an automobile. Perhaps distracted by the nearby children, he runs over a pig, and in a quietly intense exchange between Farmer, Sr. and the owner, is extorted of a month's paycheck. This reminded me of a similar scene in the 1980's movie, `Centennial,' and showed the contrast between a good film with a similar theme and a great one.

In another part, the debate team makes their way by night to their debate destination when they come across a truly horrible sight. What they see through the windshield reveals a mob of white men who don't like having their heinous deeds brought to light. Shaken, they each try to come to cope with their discovery as they often lose focus and courage in the face of Polson's opposition and the violence laid before them.

Always kept in check by their unyielding leader, the debate team holds out for all possible opportunity. Audacious but unflinching, Polson invites Harvard to a debate match. One of the master strokes of the movie is how the debates and their topics match the action that goes on all around them. Show and tell is mixed expertly for a meaningful movie experience.

`The Great Debaters' is a top-echelon movie experience. Although it is reminiscent of movies like Mississippi Burning,To Kill a Mockingbird (Collector's Edition), and Akeelah and the Bee it captures a fulfilling true life story in a way that doesn't feel like rehash or contain a wasted scene. (Directed by Denzel Washington and screenplay by Robert Eisele)
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 21, 2008
It is 1935, and at a small Negro college in Texas, Professor Tolson (Denzel Washington) is coaching the debate team. Its members include a sweet, pretty girl, a ladies' man, and a 14-year old whiz-kid. The students blossom under Tolson's leadership, but his extra-curricular activities may be a problem; at night he is secretly unionizing the share croppers, and the sheriff doesn't like it one bit.

I never expected a movie about a debate team to be intense, scary, or exhilarating, but "The Great Debaters" is all that and more. There are two stories here - one is the debate team and the other is life under segregation; both stories are compelling. The acting is uniformly outstanding; Forrest Whitaker and Washington support some lesser-known, but extremely talented young stars. We get to know their characters and care about them as they overcome their various obstacles to become the top Negro college debate team in the country.

The injustices of segregation are vividly and heartbreakingly portrayed; it was quite a sobering look at the legalized cruelty of that time and place. The fact that this is a true story makes it all the more inspiring. Heartily recommended.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 11, 2008
I first heard about THE GREAT DEBATERS when my friend and I were browsing through the antique shops of Arcadia, LA. The owner of one of those shops told me that several pieces of furniture out of her store had been purchased to use in the movie. That was fascinating. When you watch the movie, you'll have so much to see -- all the rich historical drama and good acting of a suspense-filled plot -- that you may not notice the authenticty of the set, including the furniture. If you buy the DVD, you will have enough interesting things to watch again and again.

It is sad to realize how things were in the 1930's in the part of the world where I live. This movie portrays the horrible way black people were treated. This story of Melvin B. Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, gives background information about the Civil Rights movement. Tolson's 1935 debate club at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas, stunned the nation. (I won't give the end of the plot away!)

Langston Hughes, the famous poet who authored "A Dream Deferred", visited Wiley College and said, "Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him." Tolson was active on many levels. In real life he was an English and speech professor, labor organizer, modern poet, novelist, debate coach, drama coach, and football coach! His methods were radical. At times while I watched the movie, I was anxious about some of his behavior as played by Denzel Washington. It is amazing that this man was not lynched.

Instead, the professor did just fine and eventually left Wiley College to teach in Oklahoma. Wiley College, located in east Texas between Dallas and Shreveport, is doing fine too. In fact, it continues to thrive and has one of th best teacher-student ratios in the nation.

I digress. Back to the movie, I admired the writers and producers, along with Denzel Washington (the director) for having the courage to tell the truth. The movie protrays painfully true pictures of both blacks and whites of the time. It shows the oppression of intelligent black people by uneducated white people. It also shows the conflicts within a young black man who struggled with issues related to moving into adulthood. The pain he caused a young woman is played with sensitivity.

To modern educators, the students may have seemed wooden in their debates. The professor rehearsed the students and taught them by rote.
In our time, we are so eager to make all our students independent thinkers that we do not achieve the discipline that made these debaters successful.

THE GREAT DEBATERS is much more than a movie about social causes. It is a beautifully acted and produced work of art.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2007
Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters" has that classic feel-good attitude about it, the kind that can be both uplifting and inspiring when we feel that life is getting us down. I admit that sounds a little hokey. I also admit that the story is somewhat predictable, especially as it nears the end. But the strengths of this film far outweigh the weaknesses--this is a pleasant and enjoyable story, one in which overcoming adversity is not only the overall theme, but also the literal driving force of the plot. I use the word "plot" because I have no way of knowing how accurately it interprets real life; the year 1935 saw the debate team from Marshall, Texas' all black Wiley College compete with several major, mostly white universities. Leading Wiley's team was Melvin B. Tolson, an African American English professor who stirred up controversy not only because of his race, but also because of his radical political beliefs.

In the film, Denzel Washington portrays Tolson as a motivating but firm man of principle, believing that a debate can only be won through a strict regiment of reason and logic. The beginning of the semester sees the formation of a new debate team, and out of the forty-five students who try out, only four are chosen. One is Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a young man so disillusioned by life that he drowns his sorrows in reckless behavior: he drinks; he womanizes; he gets into fights with dangerous people. He's also Tolson's mental and emotional equal--both are strong-willed and stubborn, and both are willing to match wits with each other. The second student is Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first woman to ever be on Wiley's debate team. The feelings between her and Henry are strong, if a little stormy: while she does enjoy the occasional party, she doesn't appreciate the way he deals with his pain.

The third student is James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who must have been brilliant since he was in college at age fourteen. He also has feelings for Samantha, but because she only sees him as a friend, he constantly feels rejected. It doesn't help that he's always assigned as the debate team's researcher; he'd like the chance to actually debate an opposing team. His drive to succeed academically was most likely brought on by his father (Forest Whitaker, and in case you're wondering, no, he's not Denzel Whitaker's real life father); as a professor, he believes that nothing is more important than an education. It's so important to him, in fact, that some may perceive him as unsympathetic and needlessly stern.

The fourth student is Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), who's eager to please everyone, especially Professor Tolson. I wish more about this character had been explored, because being the teacher's pet is always indicative of some deep-seeded need for attention. As it was, this character is the least developed. One thing we do learn is that his father doesn't agree with communism, which is bad since rumors have been spreading about Tolson's political beliefs; dressed as a simple farmer, he secretly meets with other farmers--both white and black--and discuss how they should form into a union, which would theoretically mean equal pay for every worker. One such meeting is interrupted by a group of white vigilantes who, as you might expect, prefer the status quo to progression. Leading this group is Dozier (John Heard), Marshall's bigoted sheriff.

The major highlights of this film are the debate scenes, all of which are effective in their simplicity. They show how the Wiley team earned its reputation as undefeated champions, and the victories are so satisfying that it's easy to overlook the routine nature of the plot. Watching the students carrying off yet another trophy, I felt joyous and triumphant inside, and isn't that exactly the way I was supposed to feel? As a director, Washington has crafted a film that isn't at all unlike some of the better sports movies--it puts the characters through a series of trying circumstances only for them to arise as one and transcend. "The Great Debaters" definitely accomplishes that goal, and accomplishes it well.

This is a good thing because some heavy-handed material is not spared on the audience. Keep in mind that this takes place in 1935 in the Jim Crow south; the film's single most disturbing scene shows a white mob surrounding a lynched black man, his dead body hanging from a tree branch and burnt beyond all recognition. Tolson and his debate team see this as they drive late at night, and in the end, they barely escape with their lives.

The film culminates with the Wiley team debating Harvard University, an event so historic that it was broadcast all over the country via radio. I guess it doesn't matter that, in real life, Wiley never debated Harvard--for this story, Harvard is symbolic of that one major obstacle to be overcome. You're just going to have to see for yourselves if Wiley wins the debate; you might have some idea given the kind of film this is, but even if this is the case, I'd still recommend this movie to you. "The Great Debaters" is good-natured and inspirational, the kind of film we all want to see from time to time. In all honesty, it was an absolute pleasure to watch something so uplifting. Let's face it: movies about winning teams--of any sport--can make you feel like a winner, as well.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 1, 2008
Please allow me to give a brief summary of life for African Americans, circa 1935:

* "Jim Crow Laws" were in effect In the Southern US, requiring "separate but equal" facilities for Blacks and Whites, including schools, bathrooms, etc.
* African Americans weren't issued birth certificates by some States, thus denying them basic rights of existence
* African Americans were called Negroes--or worse, and treated accordingly
* If an Afican American wanted an education beyond high school, most went to private segregated colleges

Forgive me if you already know this, but for some, this brief history lesson is all the African American history they've had and this small amount will help understand the times and the people.

"The Great Debaters" takes place at Wiley College, a private Negro college, in Marshall, TX. The semester has just begun and it's time for tryouts for the debate team with Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) as the coach.

Out of 45 students, only 4 make the cut. That's two team members and two alternates. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is the only returning student.
Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is obviously the pick of the crop. He's so much of the same mind as Tolson, they could easily be enemies if they weren't aligned, but both men have their own demons chasing them. Samantha Booke, alternate, (Jumee Smollett), wants to be the third Negro woman to practice law in the State of Texas. She's ambitious and she nearly lets romance with Lowe get in her way. James Farmer, Jr., alternate, (Denzel Whitaker), is only 14 years old and being strongly pushed by his father Dr. James Farmer, Sr (Forest Whitaker, who is not related to him) to excel in his studies and not let the debate team get in his way.

Tolson's got an ambitious program started. From the beginning, he's writing top schools, challenging them to match wits with his students.

As the team wins, more invitations come in. Meanwhile, Tolson is privately leading an effort to form a union for the Black and White sharecroppers of the area. Unfortunately, the local farmers disapprove and the meeting's attacked with the local Sheriff in the lead. Tolson himself nearly goes to jail and loses one member of his team because he's got a dangerous reputation as a Communist.

"The Great Debaters" may not be completely accurate about the histories of the people it depicts, but it is an education to the times themselves. We learn some poignant lessons about the origin of the term lynching and see an example. We also learn about civil disobedience and what it really means--and costs--to stand up for what you believe in.

Some describe this as a 'feel good' or 'team' film and I don't dispute either of these findings, but "The Great Debaters" is also an opportunity to demonstrate the history of a time and of a people. In my opinion, this is a very good film to show to history classes of all colors, because too few people do realize the conditions of the past and the price African American people paid for a better education and more chances to interact and compete on an equal basis.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
It was the one of the best movie I saw all year. Forrester & Denzel and all the young actors were superb and story line was a movie all should see. A True story, but Denzel makes it come alive ever more .He should be Director of the Year. Supporting actor award to Forrester. This will be up for many Academy Awards . There hasnt been a movie of this caliber in a long time. This a about truth,morality,justice,the power of words, never giving up and helping others grow no matter what the odds and your shortcomings that some we have no control of but society has let become a cancer. This movie had all the emotions in humankind. Also, we hopefully have moved past the racial theme and see the movie for it beauty of how we as human move forward and make this country, your family and this world the way God intend us to grow in whatever your journey has taken you and be a overcomer . But know who is really control no matter .It will teach us to use debate of non violent and make that way to make change then violence that will only bring more violence. This will resolve to change whatever it may be. Then we see both sides of a issue so we can make each of us what is the right thing that can get us to see who we really are in the mirror and debate is a civil way to get to the truth. everyone in this movie and was part of it . It was blessing to all of us and to G-d who has given His Word. This could be the Academy award for Best Movie.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
THE GREAT DEBATERS is an interesting historical look at the first black debating team to ever compete at a white college. And although it is interesting as a film, it isn't very historically accurate.

The good is that, as a film viewer, you care about the main characters. Denzel Washington (Deja Vu) stars in -- and directs -- this ethnically challenging movie, and does so in his usually adequate way. Melvin B. Tolson (Washington) is the teacher of the Wiley College debate team in 1935 Texas. His team is comprised of three bright young black people: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), an overly-clever man with a possible future ...if he can stay out of harm's way; Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett, House, M.D.), the first female debater in Wiley College history; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a chubby lad with a penchant for research.

Growing up in the South (that's South with a capital "S"), the team must not only fight to win debates against local colleges, but must also battle the prejudices of the times. They come into close contact with ignorance and racism on a daily basis. Even their teacher, Mr. Tolson, is threatened at various crossroads.

This is what stood out in the film ...and rightfully so. But there were some serious flaws in the film, too. The biggest was the debates themselves. Many of them were based on emotion and not facts and statistics. It would've also been nice to have had the names of the actual persons within the film and not some made-up ones (some were real, like Tolson, but others were not).

Some praise has to be made for Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) as Dr. James Farmer Sr. His role was understated and held much of the powerful, emotional punch toward the final third of the movie, especially when his son James Jr. discovers why his father reacts the way he does during an embarrassing prejudicial moment.

That Wiley's black debaters made it to Harvard and debated their team is now history. But I would've liked to have seen more of the actual history than this Hollywooded version. Still, it's an interesting movie that'll give many viewers an insight into something they probably knew nothing about.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This movie takes us back to an ugly time in U.S. history -- the Jim Crow era. In a segregated little town in Texas, the African American teachers and students of tiny Wiley College pursue excellence in education and recruit a world-class debate team, good enough to take on the debaters of Harvard and win.
I'm not sure how much of this movie is fact and how much fiction but it pushed all the right buttons with me. Denzel Washington, who directed, plays the debate coach Melvin Tolson. He is fiercely intelligent, proud, politically active, angry, fearless and demanding. Washington makes him truly convincing. His debate team includes a 14-year-old budding genius and a brave young woman breaking gender and race barriers as well as a philanderer with a roving eye. Forest Whitaker plays the 14 year-old's father, a preacher with an angry exterior but a soft heart.
The movie explicitly shows the humiliations blacks suffered living in the South, including a horrific lynching. It portrays the self-hatred such scenes inspired in blacks who had to suffer them without the power to do anything about them.
One interesting aspect for me is the movie's constant refrain that education is the way out of this poverty and humiliation. By training their intellects, African Americans can reclaim their autonomy, confront their oppressors and build a better life, the movie argues.
I am afraid this lesson has been lost somewhere along the way. In those days, people paid good money to watch colleges debates and they were even boradcast on national radio. Today, we're all about glorifying rap singers and basketball players. All our communities, but especially the African American community, are the poorer because of it.
The documentary accompanying this movie shows some of the real-life characters who inspired it. You listen to those fierce, passionate, articulate, educated voices and you not only are filled with admiration for them but you also bemoan the state we've reached now.
This movie isn't perfect. It's a little formulaic perhaps. But its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It's good entertainment that also carries a message we need to hear.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I enjoyed this movie very much. Yes, I admit that I have enjoyed Denzel Washington on the screen since his St. Elsewhere days, but this movie offers so much beyond Denzel's very fine performance.

This story is adapted from the true story set in 1935 of Wiley College, a small but excellent college for African-American students (although that term did not exist at the time of the story). The characters on the team and the events are adapted (some are real, others are composites, some made up) to tell a powerful story. Does it matter that the climactic battle with Harvard in the movie was against USC in real life? And the Samantha Booke character is based on the real life Henrietta Wells who was on the 1930 debate team.

Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, who was the real life debate coach. Actually, he was a brilliant poet and political activist who taught debate to use it as a tool in his activism. What I really enjoyed about this portrayal of Tolson is that it neither denies his activism nor wears his radical views on its sleeve. These views are acknowledged and put in the context of the social struggle for racial and economic equality for African Americans. The issues the movie takes on are not about abstract theory, but the fight of those a generation from slavery to teach young brilliant minds and give them the tools they need to join the struggle for equality. I found the reminders of what life in Texas (and American generally) in 1935 to be powerful and important to remember. In fact, I think it is incredibly important to show this to young people who have never seen racism so plainly.

Do not think that because this is about a debate team that it is a dull or abstract movie. This is a passionate, fiery film that involves us emotionally while engaging us in our own intellectual debate with the film, with our own ideas, with out views about how society as evolved since the 1930s. The characters are well drawn and finely portrayed.

Forest Whitaker is terrific as Dr. James Farmer Sr. who ran Wiley in those years and was the father of the young 14 year old debater who grew up to found C.O.R.E. and lived a life committed to securing social justice for African Americans. Nate Parker plays Henry Lowe in a way that reflects the character's intelligence, talent, and fragile emotional state. Jurnee Smollett gives Samantha Booke intelligence, fire, and wit to spare. John Heard is fine in the thankless job of the sheriff doing the bidding of the local racist powers that be. And of course, Denzel Washington is superb as an actor in this movie, but deserves real praise as its director. Oprah Winfrey produced it and deserves credit for giving us a moving and informative film.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2009
The Great Debaters is a wonderfully acted, well produced film about the first college debate between a black team, Wiley College, and a white team. (In the movie, the white team is Harvard, but in fact it was USC.) The plot of the movie revolves around the struggles of the debating team to achieve recognition during an era in which civil rights were a mere glimmer on their progenitors' eyes. (Not surprisingly, several of those progenitors were members of the debating team.) The outcome is predictable, so in that sense, this is a "feel-good" film. But the purpose of the film wasn't just to make us root for the underdog. The Great Debaters was clearly intended as a vehicle to portray the origins of the civil rights movement.

The movie makes some departures from historical events, but these were not of a nature to detract from the story. Where the final debate took place is not particularly important. What is important is that the film accurately depicted the hurdles faced by the black community in the 1930s. This was an era in which "justice" was often administered at the end of a rope, and in which being black was a crime in and of itself. The horrifying scene in which James Farmer, Jr. (who eventually became one of the "Big Four" of the civil rights movement), witnesses a lynching encapsulated the purpose of this film, which was to explain the need for civil rights. The debates, themselves, while probably departing significantly from the originals, served to present the arguments used by later civil rights advocates, notably Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unlike many films based on "true stories" the Great Debaters tackled the larger social issues of the times. Because these issues--the rights of minorities, the rule of law, constitutional authority--are still pertinent, still subject to heated discussion, and still worthy of our undivided attention, the great debate continues.
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