The Reel Deel Review: THE GREAT DEBATERS

My friends and I went to see The Great Debaters on Christmas night. It’s getting to be something of a tradition; we hooked up last year to check out Dreamgirls Christmas night. Nevertheless, we were all looking forward to it, especially my friend Anthony, who, as a PROUD alum of Prairie View A&M University, was on the edge of his seat waiting for any mention of his school (Prairie View and Wiley College have history together during the time period the film covers). I’m honored to say we weren’t the least bit disappointed.

It’s rare that I watch a film and have absolutely no problem with it, but such was the case here. In fact, watching the credits at the end, I couldn’t help but think “Denzel needs to direct more.” From the beautiful and rich cinematography to the development and nuance each actor brings to his/her role, the movie was amazing – full of integrity, intelligence, and inspiration, with a light seasoning of comedy and even a bit of romance to sweeten the deal.

Every now and then a lucky moviegoer is treated to the experience of watching a star being made on the screen. In The Great Debaters, we get that moment three-fold. Nate Parker tears it up as Henry Lowe, a young man equally adept in the classroom as he is in the streets. He also has a mind for challenging authority when he sees fit; even Melvin Tolson (Washington), his level-headed mentor, isn’t off limits. He’s joined by Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke (with an “E”, lol), the first woman ever on Wiley’s debate team, and the actor with the most ironic name in the world today, Denzel Whitaker (both Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker are in the movie), as James Farmer, Jr., son of a preacher. Each actor is brilliant in their role, full of depth and poignancy beyond their years. Ms. Smollett has impressed me in the past, both with her turns in Eve’s Bayou (if you haven’t seen it, RUN, don’t walk to the video store) and Roll Bounce. This just adds to her budding greatness.

The plot itself, based on a true story, is simple: a small debate team from Marshall TX’s Wiley College, a Black college, rises to prominence as the premier negro debate team. After a few tries, they are invited to debate the team from Harvard, the reigning national champs. Many online have complained about the movie’s “racism,” saying that the film unfairly depicts whites, most of whom in the movie are very anti-Black. They fail to realize this story is set in the 1930s in the South. There weren’t exactly a slew of whites sympathetic to Blacks then. I found the movie to be fair and accurate – an unfortunate reflection of the time period and, to a lesser extent, the time we live in now (don’t act like the recent resurgence of nooses, the Jena 6 incident, and Genarlow Wilson’s unfair sentence mean nothing).

I HIGHLY recommend this movie. The best compliment I can give is that it got its messages across without brow-beating you with them (ahem, Tyler Perry). In fact, I was so inspired by The Great Debaters that I came home and finally completed rewriting a screenplay of my own. With any luck and a ton of planning, it’ll go before the camera later this year. Who knows…

Maybe next year someone will be writing a piece about MY movie.

Reel Deel Rating (out of 5):

The Great Debaters

The Great Debaters (2007)

Cast: Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett-Bell

Director: Denzel Washington

Genre: drama

Trailer The Great Debaters

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