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"The Great Debaters"

Directed by Denzel Washington.
Written by Robert Eisele.  Based on a true story.
Starring Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker.
Release Year:  2007
Review Date:  12/26/07


The trailer was solid, Oprah produced it, and Denzel directed it..."The Great Debaters" really is great, thanks to a fantastic cast of mainly nobodies and a story based in fact.

It's 1935 and at Wiley College--an all-black institution in Texas--a professor named Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) is trying to get a debate team that is so good it will have the chance to not only beat the black colleges on Wiley's debate circuit, but also get the kind of recognition that will allow it to debate white schools, too...unheard of for the time.  His debaters include the school's first female debater, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett, from "Roll Bounce"); the son of Wiley scholar James Farmer (Forest Whitaker), a roly-poly 14-year-old named James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, who is strangely not related to either Denzel Washington OR Forest Whitaker); and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a good-looking, smooth-talking, hard-drinking casual genius who has to be convinced that the debate team is even worth his time.

The dynamics between the debaters, Tolson's side activities of organizing local sharecroppers, and the elder Farmer's reluctance to let his son stand on his own at such a young age are some of the many topics that pop up during the film, all of which are tied to race relations (and, lack thereof) in Texas, where as multiple people remind us, "they hang Negroes."  The film deftly mixes this dramatic backdrop with some pretty good laughs as well as a few fun debates between the Wiley team and their opponents.  The script, by a guy who--I'm not kidding--wrote "Darkman 2" and the shitty "3" movie for ESPN about Dale Earnhardt, is very good; even now, I can't believe that this guy came up with such a great script, but there it is, for all the world to see!  Denzel's direction is once again excellent (he also did "Antwone Fisher", which I loved), but he helps himself here by appearing in this movie more than he did in "AF" and that helps the overall film since there are really no other actors of note besides Forest Whitaker.

And, the film's final debate between Wiley and Harvard is fantastic...and, like "Antwone Fisher", you better bring the tissues, male and female alike.  In fact, the only complaint I can level at "The Great Debaters" is that it had too many teary-eyed moments; this was approaching "Glory"-like status by the time all was said and done.  But, my mom and I hit this for Christmas and it was a solid treat to follow up on a spectacular day, and while this might be a better film to the black folks that caught it with us, I still think this is a film that really does bridge the gap.

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09