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Thursday, December 27, 2007

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Posted By on Thu, Dec 27, 2007 at 10:02 AM

MOVIEGOER REVIEW:  THE GREAT DEBATERS

There is great admiration to be given to Denzel Washington's latest film "The Great Debaters."  The story of a small Wiley College debate team, whose talents and accomplishments set the stage for one of the best, and most historically significant, amateur competition moments in American history.  Mr. Washington, who also stars as the film's lead Melvin B. Tolson, returns to the director's chair, five years removed from his debut "Antwone Fisher."  Like that film, "The Great Debaters" is simple, yet robust.  In spurts, it will blow you away.

I found it difficult not to draw parallels to many sports films made recently.  "Glory Road," for example, which chronicles the miraclous 1966 NCAA tournament title by Texas Western, the first team to start five black players, and "We Are Marshall," about the season following a plane crash involving the football team.  In fact, "The Great Debaters," felt like those films, with Tolson, played flawlessly by Mr. Washington, serving as their inimitable leader.  After all, the same principles of perseverence and hard work apply in debate, and Mr. Washington's film, from a script by Robert Eisele, follows the same formula as these two films. 

The cast, led by Forest Whitaker (James Farmer, Sr.) and newcomers Nate Parker (Henry Lowe), Jurnee Smollett (Samantha Booke) and Denzel Whitaker (James Farmer, Jr.) (unrelated to either Mr. Washington or Mr. Whitaker), is effortlessly good.

The film also illustrates the painful and terrible attitudes of the Jim Crowe south.  When Mr. Farmer, Sr. is humiliated in front of his family for running over a white man's pig, you want to curl up under your seat.  And when the team comes upon a lyching while driving to a debate late one night, you'll feel your stomach drop.  Not since "Mississippi Burning," have we seen such frightening images brought to the screen.

And while these experiences could have shattered this team, they soldier on to victory after victory, and then a lot more.  At the conclusion of the film we find out that Mr. Lowe went on to become a minister, Ms. Booke, a lawyer, and Mr. Farmer, Jr. a leader in the civil rights movement, and the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Mr. Washington does a fine job telling their story.  They, like us, should be proud.

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