The Great Debaters (2007) Poster

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10/10
Though I speak with the tongues of angels, but have not love....
intelearts24 December 2007
"The Great Debaters" is a very fine film.

It reminds us of what it means to be excellent, to stand for something good, to love with all our hearts, and to shine.

The performances, or the cinematography, historical care, or directorship all lift it out of the ordinary.

And in its difficult subject: racial tension and the education and discovery of values by the three young debaters from Wiley College, one of the oldest colleges in America, it creates real excitement and interest.

But the real reason that this is a fine film lies in is its plea that in education lies the reasoning, the power, and the will to change history. That learning lies not just in knowledge but also in applying that knowledge to better yourself, your world, and all of humanity.

The very significant point of the film is at the end. I can forgive the slight drag here and there because the ending is magnificent and explains something crucial about American history by its finish.

From an era when bigotry, racism, and degrading behavior was a wretched norm to our era where values are mutable, where dumbing down has no limits, and taste little place; "The Great Debaters" stands out as being a story that stands against all of these things.

The rating says it all: excellent.
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10/10
Exceptional Film, Extremely Talented Cast
gelman@attglobal.net17 December 2007
Although "The Great Debaters" does not open until Christmas, I had the good fortune of seeing it at a preview -- and I can recommend it without reservation. It is a great story, based on real events that most of us never heard of, about a debating team from Wiley College, a small black institution in rural Texas, that performs extraordinary feats because the kids are good and the team is taught by Mel Tolson, a real person, acted by Denzel Washington, who also directs. Forest Whitaker, like Washington an academy award winner, plays James Farmer Sr., the school president and the father of one of the debaters, James Farmer Jr. (yes, that James Farmer Jr.). The participation in this enterprise of Washington, Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and the Weinstein brothers should draw crowds (provided the film isn't cursed by being described as "uplifting," though it is). The revelation in this film are the performances of the three principal debaters: Jurnee Smollett as Samatha Booke (with an "e", as she proclaims when she tries out for the debate team), Nate Parker as Henry Lowe (also with an "e" as he announces in response to Samantha's declaration) and Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr. (It's an amusing coincidence, but he is unrelated either to Denzel Washington or to Forrest Whitaker.) You may have seen Jurnee Smollett earlier in her career when she was a "cute kid" and a promising actress. This film could be her portal to stardom. In addition to being a gorgeous young woman, she's also an accomplished actress, ready for bigger parts in the future. You'll also be impressed with her colleagues, people whose names you may never have heard. You don't have to be black to find this film engrossing; I'm not. All you need to be is (a) a human being and (b) someone who appreciates a good movie. I hope it makes a ton of money at the box office but it is, above all, a quality film. It just happens to be about a difficult period in American history, the rural South in the 1930's. It just happens to be inspirational and uplifting and all that good, boring stuff that cause your eyes to roll when that's how the critics describe it. But it's better than uplifting. It's GOOD and it's REAL.
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Great Sophomore Film by Denzel as a Director
desiplaya23 December 2007
Two words perfectly sum up this movie - inspirational and uplifting. I have not seen Antwone Fisher, but I will be sure to check it out after seeing this.

Before watching this, I had never even heard about Wiley College or what it did in the '30s, so not only is it great entertainment but it is also educational. I don't know how closely the movie follows the actual events so I can't point out the flaws, but it doesn't matter because the movie is brilliant and moving. This is an underdog movie and you'll be rooting for the Wiley College team throughout the movie. The acting is marvelous by all the actors, but recognition has to be given to the three stars that portray the debaters, Denzel Washington, and Forest Whitaker. Not only is Denzel great as an actor, he is even better as a director. As other reviewers have said, out of all the actors Denzel Whitaker is the star. His portrayal of James Farmer, Jr. is outstanding and this role will certainly further his acting career. Forest Whitaker doesn't have a huge role to play, but he performs his parts beautifully (for example the hog and the sheriff scenes).

Overall this is a very inspirational and uplifting movie. I wouldn't be surprised if it gets a few Oscar nods.

9/10
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9/10
The Great Denzels
Clayton Davis28 December 2007
In his sophomore effort, actor-director Denzel Washington has created one of the best films of the year, The Great Debaters. Never trying to be the cliché coming of age tale of student-teacher relationship that becomes like a bad aftertaste like past efforts, as Mona Lisa Smile; the film takes a high road to transform its narrative into a beautiful canvas for Washington to paint on like forgotten masterpieces like Stand and Deliver and Dead Poet's Society. Adapted from a Tony Scherman article by Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, the film follows an astonishing pace and never forcing anything down the audience's throat rather, uses images and manifestations for its armor.

Washington's achievement here is pulling the performances of this new, unknown young actors. Denzel Whitaker as the innocent, curious James Jr. is wonderful in exposition of character and gives the best child performance of the year. At 17, young Whitaker should have no problem coming into his own as a great young leading man in the future. Nate Parker in a momentous breakthrough performance indulges the audience as Henry, the angry young college student dealing with the inequalities of African-Americans in the South. In the end it's the tenacious performance by the beautiful Jurnee Smollett that holds the emotional premise of the film together. Not only dealing the racial barrier, but the barrier of being a woman, a woman running away from her past and trying to settle into a world dominated by the differences of her own. Smollett's debate speeches are felt with every word, every expression, and every influential command. Smollett's performance is the ignored performance worthy of consideration for awards of 2007.

Not expecting too much from last year's Oscar winner Forest Whitaker probably helped him in watching the film. Whitaker reminds the viewer of how great he was for years before The Last King of Scotland. This is a true superior work on the actor's resume. So how Denzel Washington do in directing himself? Not glossing as much as Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner past works, Washington does an admirable effort and takes the supporting role (yes it's supporting) and acts as the film's right hand man. Adding his charisma, potency, and veteran thespian persona, the film is a success.

In terms of Oscar's chances, costume designer Sharen Davis nominated for her designs in Ray and Dreamgirls is worthy of citation. David J. Bomba's production design is quite easy on the eye and captures the era of tyranny and persecution. With the potential to be a late surge to the Academy Awards race, The Great Debaters delivers on every level encompassing the richness of love, the evil of oppression, and the beauty of triumph.

Grade: ****/****
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7/10
The Beginning of Civil Rights Legislation
Casablanca378431 December 2007
Of course the title deals with debating but it goes far deeper than that. Forest Whitaker, playing a true academician in every sense of the word, has both a precocious and gifted 14 year old son played by the brilliant Denzel Whitaker,no relation, and that son is none other than James Farmer Jr.,whom 7 years later becomes the founder of C.O.R.E., the Congress on Racial Equality. Thus began the beginning of the end of segregation as well as the vicious Jim Crow laws of the South which made it as difficult for a Negro to live and thrive there as it did for the Jew in pre-war Third Reich Germany. Yet, the film was basically not political in theme.

It deals with a small black college in Texas,Wiley,that had a poet plus a political agitator played by Denzel Washington as many students' mentor. Denzel, knowing that if given the chance, a few gifted students could form a debating team to challenge any college team in the nation and he sets out to prove it. Keep in mind that the main theme of the Civil Rights Movement was "if given the chance" and so the film builds on it and does the kind of damage to opponents as did the great "Brown Bomber," Joe Louis.

Although a bit slow moving and at times, pretentious, the film was very skillfully done in bringing to light the efforts accomplished by the African Americans to do away with the perniciousness having pervaded this nation from the time the first slave ship landed on our shores. Without delving into the ultra-political, nevertheless we are made to see for ourselves how prophetic became the words "We can overcome".

Who wrote, "And the youth shall guide them?" Truer words never written. Those Wiley College kids, without anything but minds for weapons, caused a revolution from the mid '30s to the present--kids who put real meaning into the Emancipation Proclamation.
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10/10
You should see this film
Phillip Golub20 December 2007
I say this because: 1) The acting is remarkable. Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, and Kimberly Elise are all stunningly good 2) The cinematography is very well done and the score is beautifully and uplifting. 3) The story is great. It has multiple underdog themes which when watching, you root so much for the underdog it actually hurts :). These would be: a) the black people in the south in the 1930s b) little Wiley collage (especially when they are vs Harvard) c) the 14 year old boy James P. Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) who is seemingly incapable at first of debating. Do yourself a favor and see "The Great Debaters". You are going to love it.
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8/10
Elucidating entertainment
msims128 December 2007
THE GREAT DEBATERS is a movie-going treat, with young people exemplifying truth, respect, pride and dignity. In an entertaining way, with some preaching, this movie shows four African-American debaters succeeding in the face of adversity, growing stronger with success AND defeat. Their debates are lively and thought provoking.

However, before, during and after these contests, other serious and complicated issues are revealed. Two of these issues deal with a confrontation on the road between two farmers and a minister, and a lynching in the middle of the night. Both are reflections of the time, unsettling and disturbing to those in the movie and in the audience.

This is not family entertainment, nor is it mindless entertainment. It has no gratuitous sex, but there is a hint of romance. It is fast paced, but the action is verbal – not physical. THE GREAT DEBATERS lives up to its name in that it has something for everyone, and not everyone will like it. I recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a quality film that will be debated by all who see it!
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6/10
Triumph ... and Treacle
cliffs_of_fall10 January 2008
Sometimes you can enjoy every second of a movie, every frame, and be phenomenally moved by it, and cry a happy tear … and yet, when you ponder the film afterward, you feel disappointment, a sense of "why couldn't this film have been braver?" For me, this was that kind of film. There's just no subtlety in it and situations are stock.

Best things: the design of the film, the cinematography, the casting of the primary characters, and, most importantly, the inspirational theme of debating, of speaking well as a way out and up. I hope it inspires young people of all races to clean up their bad speech habits, speak up and be heard. As the Samantha character says at one point, in wonder, "I didn't need weapons, I had words!"

Worst things: predictable plot line, the fact that the speeches themselves, while well delivered, are not always well formulated, and the deliberate decision to end with an unalloyed triumph when the actual situation was less glamorous and more poignant; other postings here have explained why. As someone pointed out, the white characters are demonized (I would say "stereotyped") and not only by cretinous pig farmers in Texas but by the young Harvard debaters whose delicate features and snooty bearing make them seem like Stepford Scions. Oh, well … black characters in films have often been stock but one must ask, if that was wrong then why is this right now?

Oprah is a soft-hearted person with an aspirational dream for her people. That's nice but it doesn't necessarily lead to great art.
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4/10
Well-intentioned but formulaic!
Turfseer18 November 2008
Warning: Spoilers
'The Great Debaters is inspired by the true-life exploits of the all-black Wiley College debating team in Marshall, Texas in the 1930s. The script follows only the bare outline of the events that actually occurred. The debates themselves and the ideas behind them are a very small part of the picture. Instead we're treated to a series of snippets (or sound bites) with the Wiley team always taking the morally superior position and of course winning. At no time are they asked to show their real skills as debaters and take a position which they ethically and morally oppose. While the true Wiley College debaters of history were certainly admirable for what they achieved, there was no need to put them all on a pedestal by having them best the Harvard Debate team in the film's climax. In reality, Wiley beat USC; by depicting them as beating Harvard, the implication is that somehow they were superstars for beating the best (and hey maybe they were just excellent students who don't need to be mythologized).

The main character, Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) is based on the real Wiley College professor who also was a union organizer. In a scene that felt like it was more likely to take place in the 1960s than the 1930s, Tolson heads a secret meeting of black sharecroppers as well as whites intent on organizing against racist farmers. The meeting is broken up by a group of angry whites and Tolson escapes with his life (along with James Farmer Jr., the 14 year old member of his debating team, later to become a famous civil rights leader). The probability of this scene actually having happened in 1930s Texas is low especially the idea that there were progressive whites who would even consider attending a meeting together with poor black sharecroppers. Later, Tolson is arrested for organizing the union meeting. In reality,wouldn't he have been taken away in the middle of the night and dumped in a shallow grave? Or perhaps lynched? Here, the black community wields a lot more power than it actually had in those days, when a group led by James Farmer Sr., the dignified Wiley professor played by Forrest Whittaker, convinces the town's sheriff to release Tolson on bond. We never really find out the outcome of Tolson's arrest (which presumably is a fictional scene) but according to the end credits, he went on to live a distinguished life as an academic and poet.

The rest of the movie is taken up with a subplot concerning the romance between the team's only female member, Samantha Booke and the bad-boy character, Henry Lowe (who incurs Samantha's wrath by getting drunk and hanging out with another woman after witnessing a lynching). The aforementioned 14 year old has a crush on Samantha and must overcome his feelings of jealousy before he can best Harvard in the final showdown.

The film is not without its powerful moments. The most memorable is when James Farmer Sr. accidentally kills a boar while driving in his car with his family. He's forced to pay compensation to two racist whites by handing over his paycheck and is further humiliated when one of the racists drops the check and makes Farmer bend over and pick it up (it's scenes like this that are far more effective than the typical mob scenes of racist whites on the loose since they show the day-to-day humiliations which blacks had to endure across the country on a daily basis). There is also an actual lynching scene which Tolson and his debaters stumble upon while driving on a darkened road.

Despite this, The Great Debaters is a well-intentioned but formulaic project. Yes, it always feels good to be on the winning side but when drama becomes manipulative, art is subsumed by propaganda.
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8/10
You do what you have to do, so you can do what you want to do.
lastliberal26 December 2007
This wasn't about my Texas, although I am familiar with many of the topics in this film. I have been to Marshall in my travels over most of the highways in Texas, I know about Paul Quinn College and Prairie View A & M University. This wasn't even about my Daddy's Texas, as he was just a small boy at the time. It was, however, my Grandfather's Texas. he typified the characters in this film.

With Denzel Washington directing and acting, I expected an outstanding film. I was not prepared to be so emotionally taken in that I left the theater wiping tears from eyes. This was a powerful statement about the differences in American. Differences that were typified by Franklin Roosevelt's affirmative action program for whites - the New Deal; differences that would be repeated twenty years later after WWII when the whites again received affirmative action in the form of the GI Bill. Robert Eisele's story really brought home the pain and deprivation of being Black in America, and how some could overcome that deprivation with the right help, but could never overcome the pain.

Besides Washington, there were outstanding performances by Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and Denzel Whitaker, as a 14-year-old in college.

Tears in my eyes, I will long remember this film as one of the best of the year and of many years.
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