The Great Debaters

As an intelligent and important film with a purpose, The Great Debaters is constantly uplifting and deeply moving.

Two of society’s evils publicly condemned by Oprah Winfrey are violence against women and racial oppression. Unsurprisingly, Harpo Productions’ (Oprah spelt backwards) latest offering is a period drama that not only speaks about racial violence, but the courage of real people and what they did to overcome it.

Set in 1935 Texas, a time before public swimming pools and ‘coloured’ swimming pools, a time when it was not derogatory to call African-Americans “Negros”, Wiley College professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) assembles a team of young black Americans in preparation for the annual inter-college debate competition. Comprising of James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the team quickly gains momentum with an undefeated winning streak. Populated by the traditionally black community of rural Texas, Wiley College enters the championship league, but must now face their greatest advisory – an all-white team from the acclaimed Harvard University. But even before they have a fair chance, Tolson faces allegations of stirring political unrest as a black communist, leaving the team to go on without their coach.

The outcome of the final debate, though a tear-jerker, is just one amongst various highpoints in this remarkable film. At the very core is the bleeding cry for truth and justice – quintessentially manifested by outstanding portrayals from Farmer Jr, Parker and Smollett, not forgetting Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker (as James Farmer Sr.) in fiery supporting roles. Adapted from Tony Scherman’s journal on American Legacy, Robert Eisele’s screenplay is a driving force with just the right pace and depth that induces a strong yearning to learn about an untold but dark story before America’s so called ‘Golden Years’. Borrowing from actual events, Eisele’s premise is juxtaposed between Gandhi’s Satyagraha and Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement, making this not just a true story, but the biopic of a man that would become a modern American poet – Melvin Beaunorus Tolson.

At a time when it is politically incorrect to call an ethnic race by the colour of skin or traditional sustenance, The Great Debaters is a film with a story that boldly refuses to remain hidden within the forgotten pages of history. In comparison, this film could have been executed with the darker tone of Mississippi Burning but in essence, it remains an intellectual masterpiece with a purpose – a stark reminder that racism still exists; As does slavery.

By his inherent nature of on-screen charisma, spit-fire dialogue and tenacious characterization, Denzel Washington is a cinematic marvel and nothing short of a silver screen incendiary. But if these are his traits as a skilled actor, then this film is all the more inspiring, encouraging and uplifting because The Great Debaters also benefits from having Denzel Washington as the director. Oh yes, Oprah Winfrey would be proud!

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.