Movie Review: The Great Debaters – Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett & Denzel Whitaker

The Great Debaters - SoundtrackMovie: The Great Debaters (PG-13)
Released: December 25th, 2007
Runtime: 2 hr. 3 min.
Ticket Price: $5.00 Early Matinee
Refreshments: Gummy Bears
Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker & Kimberly Elise
Director: Denzel Washington

Rating: Pay Full Price and See it Twice

Synopsis: Professor Melvin Tolson was a brilliant but volatile man that coached debating. He uses the power of words to turn an underdog group from a small African American college into an elite group of debaters. He was a very controversial person, in the way he taught and the political views that he held. In a groundbreaking event, his team was invited to debate the Harvard University’s championship team.

Review: The Great Debaters falls into the category of “saving the best for last,” as it is the last movie watched and reviewed by New Movie Friday this year, but turns out to be the best all around movie of the 55 movies screened in 2007.

While The Great Debaters may not be historically accurate, like facing Harvard in the climatic scene instead of USC, it does do a great job of putting you in the middle of what life was like back in the 1930s. This is a very inspirational film, but not in a rah-rah way. The theater wasn’t packed on the morning after Christmas, but those that were in attendance sat still and quiet, seemingly reflecting on what they had just watched, as the credits started to roll. No one immediately darted out of the theater, which is usually the case when most films end.

The Great Debaters takes the format of the underdog sports movie, except instead of high school basketball in a movie like Hoosiers, it is college debates that take center stage. Yet, given the subject matter and the time period in which it takes place, this movie has a bit more heft in its drama than even your better sports movies.

Denzel Washington’s (Antwone Fisher) second turn behind the camera is a rousing success, as is his time spent in front of it. The portrayal of small town 1935 Texas is something to watch. There is a scene about halfway into the movie that gives you the full brutality of the times in which his character, Melvin Tolson, lived.

Others provide great performances as well. Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Denzel Whitaker, while not related, are great as Dr. James Farmer, Sr. and son James Farmer, Jr. But, the performance of the movie should probably go to Jurnee Smollett (Gridiron Gang) as Samantha Booke. She was outstanding as the first woman to make the debate team at Wiley College and had the perfect southern accent only added to the role.

Overall, The Great Debaters is a movie worth seeing and more than once. The outcome may be predictable going in, but the journey to get you there, is well worth taking.

Let us know your thoughts on The Great Debaters in the comments.

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Jason of New Movie Friday
3 comments… add one
  • gaynell reyno Jan 12, 2008, 7:04 pm

    My husband and I just returned from viewing this movie and we both loved it. We both give it an A. We will recommend it to many friends, family & others.

  • Ron Runner Feb 9, 2009, 7:44 pm

    My wife and I watched this movie just recently. I didn’t have much of an idea of what the movie was about, apparently either having missed the hype when the movie was first released, or just forgotten about it since. The DVD jacket sounded interesting, and the cast was impressive, so we rented it. What a lucky move … it turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve seen in the past several years. Not too many movies make you sit and reflect after watching them, but this was one (A Few Good Men also comes to mind). Highly recommended!

  • Brothel Poet Apr 17, 2009, 5:28 pm

    I loved, loved, loved this movie. Where has it been all my life.
    In college, many, many years ago, I was irritated that Whoopee Goldberg did some movie about a loveable maid who has the usual brand of “quiet dignity” that white folks like to see in their cinematic black domestics. I explained this to my white friends, who were a bit upset. “That’s the way it was.” They explained to me. That’s all black people did? In research for my own work, I realized that nothing could be further from the truth. I have found the black intellectuals devoted themselves to the black struggle for equality and justice well into slavery times (see New Orleans). This movie reminds me not only that blacks were intellectuals, but the nature of our intellectualism, which has its own dynamism and intricacy. Thank you, Mr. Washington. Bravo.

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