Despite the fact that it just opened on Christmas Day, there’s already been a lot of Oscar buzz about Denzel Washington’s new movie The Great Debaters. I’ve been hearing about this film for more than a month now, and when all the positive reviews started rolling in, I decided that I’d go see it in theaters. Obviously, there’s always the chance that a film generating this much hype would be a disappointment in the end, but that didn’t happen here.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The Great Debaters presents the true story of the 1935 Wiley College (Marshall, TX) debate team coached by professor Melvin Tolson (played by Washington). The team was comprised solely of African-American students at a time when racism, lynching, and Jim Crow laws were still facts of life in the South.
Nevertheless, the Wiley College team overcame every obstacle in their way, and through sheer persistence, were able to secure invitations to debate against all-white universities — including Harvard, the reigning national champions.
Considering the title, the plot dealt surprisingly little with the actual debates. Instead, the focus was on team members Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), and their interactions with Tolson. We see Tolson helping the students work through their separate issues to make them not only better debaters, but also better, stronger individuals.
A running subplot in the film was how Tolson spent his off-campus hours trying to organize sharecroppers (both black and white) into a union. This didn’t sit well with local authorities, which led to even more problems for Tolson and the team.
In the end, however, they all make it to the Harvard debate, and, drawing on the horrors that they lived through and witnessed, manage to defeat the reigning national champs.
My Reaction: I knew nothing about Melvin Tolson or the Wiley College debaters before going into this film, but that didn’t detract from my viewing experience at all. I thought this was a very powerful movie that dealt with major issues (without getting preachy), so I can definitely see why it’s making all sorts of Top-10 lists for the best movies of 2007.
I thought Denzel Washington was fantastic as Tolson. He’s just so believable in this type of inspirational mentor role that I couldn’t really imagine anyone else being as effective in the part. In addition, I thought Denzel Whitaker was awesome as James Farmer, Jr., the precocious 14-year-old college student. I’m sure we’ll be seeing him in more movies in the future!
Ordinarily, I don’t like it when subplots overpower the main events in a film, but The Great Debaters was definitely an exception. Everything that was going on with the lynching and unionizing attempts was so relevant to the students’ lives that it would have been impossible to separate one story from the other. Plus, even with all the sidetracking, I thought the pacing of the film was quick enough to prevent me from being bored.
The only thing I didn’t like about this film was the fact that it didn’t bother to explain the debating format or anything about the way the debates would be judged. It’s as though the filmmakers assumed that the audience would already be familiar with such things or wouldn’t care about such details, but that wasn’t the case with me. As a result, I didn’t know what was going on during the climactic scenes against Harvard, and had no way to gauge if the Wiley team was doing well or not. Let’s face it: debate is not like, say, football. You can’t just assume that people will understand what’s being judged during the speeches.
Overall, I thought The Great Debaters was a very moving film. It is certainly one of the year’s ten best, and is absolutely worth seeing in the theater. I give it 4 stars out of 5.