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Still shot from the movie: The Great Debaters.

The Great Debaters

The Great Debaters is based on a true story of Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington), a Texas professor who encourages his African-American students to believe they can take on the world. In 1935, he puts together and coaches a debate team, hoping they can compete against Harvard University in an upcoming championship. Get the movie review and more. »


Overall: B+ 4.0
Violence: C-
Sexual Content: C
Language: B
Drugs/Alcohol: C
Run Time: 126
Theater Release: 24 Dec 2007
Video Release: 11 Jan 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
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Helmed by Denzil Washington under the umbrella of Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, The Great Debaters exposes a forgotten slice of African American history when a small black college became the leaders in spoken word competition.

Although it is illegal to own a slave in 1935 (the time in which the movie is set), it is still certainly more than acceptable to treat a colored person worse than a farm dog -- especially in deep south USA. And that is where predominantly black Wiley College is located. But Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington), a teacher at the school, is a man with a deep desire to lead his people out of the prejudiced swamps of the bayou. With a determination that only gets stronger in the face of opposition, the Professor involves himself in socially active extra-curricular pastimes, such as the tiny institution's debate team.

Tolson begins to coach a group of dedicated oral warriors to use words as ammunition. They include Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) and15-year-old James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Under his tutelage, the students spar against other black schools with great success. Yet claiming victory over their "equals" is not enough for the Professor who has big dreams of challenging white schools too. Even Harvard, the king of them all, is on his list. However, getting the higher and mightier universities to agree to compete against little Wiley takes a great deal of effort. In the meantime, Tolson is also wrestling with other controversial issues closer to home, like his involvement in an organization promoting the unionization and integration of black and white laborers.

The Great Debaters, perhaps best described as a somewhat nerdy version of Remember the Titans, explores the misery and intolerance African Americans were forced to endure during this period. Lynching mobs, beatings, and a very gruesome scene of a man who has been burned to death on a cross all contribute to the harrowing visual messages of this film. As well, there are detailed verbal descriptions of inflicted torture. This content may be disturbing for adult audiences and downright terrifying for children too young to appreciate the circumstances being represented.

While it might be argued the violent depictions are warranted because of the context, the same may not hold true for a sexual relationship that develops between a couple of teammates. The story takes an unnecessary detour to briefly show the two embracing and kissing in bed, followed by a scene of them waking up together the next morning.

Still, there is no debate regarding the validity of the film's statement on racism. Mixing actual events with fictional elements and characters (Tolson and Farmer are based on real people), the movie manages to be engaging and thought provoking, even if it is sometimes predictable. However, considering the possibly disturbing and objectionable subject matter, parents may have to hold their own great debate before bringing their children to see this drama.

The Great Debaters is rated PG-13: for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.

Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker.
Studio: 2007 Weinstein Company
Website: Official site for The Great Debaters.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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