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THE GREAT DEBATERS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, John Heard, Kimberly Elise
Director: Denzel Washington
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Weinstein Company
Features: See Review
Length: 124 Minutes
Release Date: May 13, 2008

“I, and every other professor on this campus, are here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind.”

Film ****

The Great Debaters may sound like a traditional inspirational movie, and in some ways it is. But for me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with experiencing another inspirational story, especially if it’s told through a new format we haven’t seen in the movies. The college debate team is just such a format, and it provides the backdrop for this profound and deeply moving story.

Denzel Washington does double duty as both director and star of this film. This is his second time in the director’s chair, following 2002’s Antwone Fisher, and Washington has followed that terrific film with an even greater one. The Great Debaters is one remarkably crafted period piece.

Inspired by a true story, the film chronicles the rise of an underdog debate team in 1930s Texas. Wiley College in the small town of Marshall, Texas was one of few black colleges established in the Jim Crow South. So it goes without saying that skin color plays a huge role in their underdog factor.

The focus of the story is the group of young students who try out for the debate team, under the guidance of charismatic teacher Melvin Tolson (Washington). Tolson is quite a complex man, and results in another astonishing performance from Washington. He’s a threat to whites in the community who don’t like the fact that he’s a radical sort who is organizing a local sharecropper’s union, which it turns out is uniting farmers both black and white (a real surprising aspect of the story).

More specifically, the story focuses on four individual students who come from different backgrounds. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is a rebellious type who happens to harbor great intelligence that is needed in a debate team. Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) is the only female member of the team and has transferred from another school simply to have her voice be heard. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is a brilliant speaker and a conservative type. And James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), is the youngest member of the team whose strict father (Forest Whitaker) is both a preacher and a professor at Wiley, and isn’t too fond of Tolson’s radical nature.

But despite Tolson’s controversies (the story also indicates that he had communist ties), he keeps his politics outside the classroom and concentrates on molding the students into powerful speakers. He urges those in his class to use words as weapons. His tactics for doing so are unique and questionable, but they result in a number of victories against local colleges.

When the students achieve, you can’t help but want to stand on your feet and cheer. Now while that sounds like the type of audience reaction expected in such inspirational films about an underdog team, here such a reaction is merited when you take into account the harsh and struggling times blacks had to endure. To see them emerge victorious in something coming from an education, which these students are using to escape from the grim reality of prejudice, is an achievement that should have everyone on their feet cheering.

And the harsh realities of the time period are brought before not only the eyes of the characters, but the eyes of the viewer as well. During a scene, where Tolson is driving his students to an out of town debate, they come across a most horrific site. They come across a white mob that has just lynched a black man, after which they escape from the mob just barely. Experiences like this end up having a tremendous effect on future debates.

The debate scenes are nothing short of powerful, both in the acting and the directing. And it’s the climatic debate at Harvard, a once in a lifetime chance for the Wiley team. It’s at the end of this debate that will have you wanting to stand up and cheer your heart out.

The film is a marvel in every aspect of filmmaking. In addition to the story’s importance, you have tremendous production design, perfectly capturing the look of the time period. The widescreen cinematography provided by Philippe Rousselot is quite striking. And the performances are terrific all across the board, not only from Oscar winners Washington and Whitaker but from the young actors portraying the students. The performances from Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from younger aged actors. I also must say that Ms. Smollett is something of a beauty.

The Great Debaters is as remarkably inspiring as a film can get. It’s a story from our past that needed to be told, and Denzel Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele have done an absolute outstanding job in bringing this period to life. It’s a triumphant achievement that everyone should see.

Video ****

This is a most outstanding presentation from The Weinstein Company, and may just be the best looking release from them to date. The anamorphic widescreen image is clear, crisp and full of amazing detail from beginning to end. Colors are quite magnificent, as well. The images provided by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot are most amazing in this presentation.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix serves this dialogue-driven film exceptionally well. Dialogue mixes in tremendously well with James Newton Howard’s wonderful score to the film. And the word delivery is quite terrific in the debating scenes.

Features ****

A single disc version is also available, but it’s this 2-Disc Collector’s Edition release that you should go with. Despite the absence of a commentary track, we do get some tremendous extras. Disc One includes Deleted Scenes, a featurette titled “The Great Debaters: A Historical Perspective”, and two music videos for the songs “That’s What My Baby Likes” and “My Soul Is a Witness”, as well as a Theatrical Trailer and Bonus Previews.

Disc Two includes more extensive behind the scenes material. The documentaries cover individual areas of the production, and a number of them include interviews with the actual members of the Wiley College debate team. Included is “The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music”, “Scoring The Great Debaters With James Newton Howard and Peter Golub”, “Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp”, “Forest Whitaker On Becoming James Farmer, Sr.”, “A Generation of New Actors”, “The 1930’s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis”, “The Production Design of David J. Bomba” and “The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson”.

And this Collector’s Edition also comes with an insert booklet, and a most detailed one at that, which is so rare nowadays. I give The Weinstein Company major points for including what was once a special factor of DVD releases.

Summary:

The Great Debaters is like a four course meal of remarkable filmmaking. Acting, directing, story and every aspect of the production blend to create a most important story that deserves to be seen by everyone. A triumph on all accounts!

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