Media Maven: “The Great Debaters”

Media Maven: “The Great Debaters”

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The Great Debaters
Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jermaine Williams, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise


Based on the true story of a small Texas college in 1935, “The Great Debaters” is a film worth viewing. Its merit lies in the compelling story and the actors who bring it to life.

Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College, created the school’s first debate team. The team’s prominence lies in its ability to compete nationally among colleges of other races. Denzel Washington not only portrays Professor Tolson, but also does double duty as director of the film. He was so committed to this project produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, that Washington refused his actor salary and opted to direct this film.

As a period piece representing life in the south in 1935, this film aptly portrays the social milieu of the time. Jurnee Smollett, as the young and only female member of the debate team, gives a performance of conviction and triumph. She is partnered with the handsome Nate Parker as Howard Lowe. Denzel Whitaker plays the third member of the group.

The performances given by this ensemble are a credit to their craft. Their experiences as people of color add poignancy to the film. All of the blemishes and injustices of a time when all people were not valued, educated or treated equally resonate throughout.

Forest Whitaker gives a haunting performance of a prominent, educated man who is reduced to highway robbery after he is forced to pay restitution for hitting a white man’s stray pig. He is forced to give away a week’s salary in return for his family’s safety. Denzel Whitaker (no relation) rises to the occasion as Forest Whitaker’s son, offering a performance both provocative and challenging.

In the younger Whitaker’s character we see a fourteen-year-old adolescent experiencing first-hand the ugliness of prejudice and ignorance after he and his teammates witness a lynching. That harrowing experience is the epitome of young Whitaker’s winning argument in the final debate. It is indeed powerful.

The Great Debaters is a thinking person’s film. It challenges us. It educates us. And hopefully, it makes us better.

Rating: Four Chic Stars

Jan’s Movie Rating System:
5 – Top notch entertainment
4 – Compelling, Heartwarming, Thrilling, Comical
3 – The a) story b) actors c) special effects saved/made this movie.
2 – If you are bored watch it, or wait for DVD
1 – Don’t bother. Too morose, too violent, too blasé, an enigma.