The Great Debaters
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The Great Debaters

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There are many formulas in film that have stood the test of time. They are used over and over mostly because they appeal to the audiences. One that is mostly used in the sports oriented movie is the vindication of the underdog. It is snot only American film goers that react so strongly to an individual or small group overcoming incredible odds and succeed where everyone thought they would fail. This speaks to a part of all of us; we all want to see the little guy win out against insurmountable odds. This theme even goes back to the Bible with the battle between little David and the giant Goliath. One of the latest members of this specific genre is ‘The Great Debaters’ by Denzel Washington soars above the pack providing not only excellent entertainment but a good old fashion lift for the spirit. The plot twist that works so well here is this is a sport movie that doesn’t focus on sports; it is about a debate squad. Anyone that has ever been part of such a team knows that although the demands are more intellectual the stress and strain are as great as found in any competitive sport. This is a powerful, emotional film that will place you on the edge of your seat. Anyone out there that may feel that a film about a bunch of college students debating each other can’t be engaging you will be pleasantly surprised as you watch this film.

Charged with the task of writing the story and script is Robert Eisele. He has a few feature films to his credit but most of his writing has been done for television. Some of his film credits include sequels such as ‘Darkman II: The Return of Durant’ and the lamentable ‘The Birds II: Lands End’. The story was based on real events with the typical deviations from historical accuracy made for some dramatic effect. These changes are forgivable here since Eisele captures the spirit and drive of the story in a realistic fashion. This is more than a story about some college kids forming a debating team and taking on the best team around. It is set in the mid nineteen thirties during a time of formalized segregation of the races. This places the debating team as a microcosm against the much larger problem to overcome; racism and prejudice. Eisele never gets heavy handed in his approach to these two conjoined issues. He focuses on the individuals; specially the young people, as they drive themselves to rise above the current social restrictions they face. His script doesn’t attempt to gloss over the climate of the times; instead he faces it head on using the debating team as a means to relate to the larger more important issues they encounter. Eisele also avoids the trap of over glorifying the students. He paints them as flawed individuals that have personal problems that threaten to impede the realization of their goals. This comes across in a way that reinforces the inspirational message the film contains. It goes beyond race to something that relates to everyone in the audience.

Not only does Denzel Washington star in the film he directed it. This is his second time up at bat in the big chair for a film; the acclaimed ‘Antwone Fisher’ being his first. Washington is one of the most incredible actors of his generation and provides a great performance here. As the director he takes a safer approach than he does in front of the camera. Since this is not the type of film that requires a lot of fancy direction Washington gets away with a more low key approach here. He uses the camera in a straightforward manner letting it relate the story to the audience without interference or driving the perspective. Washington is the type of director who trusts his cast to do their job. Considering the fantastic performances by the young members of the cast it is obvious that Washington was as much an acting coach as director. He avoids the pitfall that so many new directors, especially those who gained recognition as an actor, fall into. He doesn’t over direct or rely on typical film school tricks with the angles and lighting. Washington points his camera at the actors and lets them tell the story. He made a great choice of cinematographer with Philippe Rousselot. His able to light a scene is genius. This is talent that is really recognized; when it is done ass well as it is here the effect is almost subliminal working on the audience without them even being aware of how powerful the scene is.

Wiley College in Texas was one of many institutions of high learning for the black community. The story takes place in 1935 when segregation and prejudice are not only the social norm they are codified in the laws of the states. Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a social activist, professor of English and up coming poet and he decides that what the school needs is a debating team. This activity prepares the students involved for life, particularly in a time when even the most fundamental rights for blacks has to be earned with arduous work. Slowly, Tolson gathers his team together. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is forthright; unconcerned with social form and pleasantries. He has fought is isolation by becoming an avid reader and polymath. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is almost painfully shy; unwilling to face any controversy. He is bright and articulate but Tolson has to help he focus and come out of his shell. James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is a fourteen year old protégé with a sharp and facile mind. His father, James Sr. (Forest Whitaker), is stern and demanding to the young man instilling a strong sense of duty and pride in him. The last member and only female is Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett) a bold and confident young woman who aspires to the then nearly impossible task of becoming an attorney. This film could have become a debating version of Rocky but rises above by the way the times are shown. Young Farmer is forced to watch as his proud father has to grovel in front of white man to avoid being shot. While on a road trip to a debate they team come across a lynching. Now with some seven decades of time past it is a shock to see that these young people had a lot more than winning or losing a debate. They were fighting for their rights too be equal. Farmer would in real life go on to found the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was one of the top leaders in the civil rights movement of the sixties. In the film the ultimate adversary was the al white Harvard debating team. In reality they debated and won over the University of Southern California. Eisele has explained that the change was made to highlight just how difficult and historical this win was.

The DVD is being distributed by the Weinstein Group with Genius Products; one of the best in presenting a variety of quality films to disc. The DVD is presented in two forms, a single disc version and a two disc collector’s edition. Both feature a beautiful anamorphic video. The audio is a robust Dolby 5.1 with a sound field that fills the room. There are also plenty of extras to extend your enjoyment and understanding.

Disc One (both versions)

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Deleted scenes

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The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective

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‘That’s What My Baby Likes’: Music Video

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‘My Soul is a Witness’: Music Video

Disc Two (collector’s edition only)

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The Great Debaters: A heritage of music

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Scoring the Great Debaters with James Newton Howard & Peter Golub

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Learning the Art: Our young actors go to debate camp

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Forest Whitaker: On becoming James Farmer Sr.

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A New Generation of Actors

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The 1930’s wardrobe of Sharen Davis

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The production Design of David J. Bomba

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The poetry of Melvin B. Tolson

This is one film that every household needs to own and watch as a family.

Posted 04/22/08

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