Friday, June 5, 2009

The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington is Prof. Melvin B. Tolson who educates at Wiley College Texas. He is also the coach of the school debate team and is a born leader. On top of this, he is pushing the charge against the rich land owners and powers at be. Melvin is called a communist and he may be one. He never discloses this. But he is fighting for equal treatment since the local politicians, Sheriff and wealthy business folks are in cahoots to maintain the corrupt and unfair status quo.

Denzel allows an unknown actor to receive some proper face time on the large screen and his name is Nate Parker. Henry Lowe is the character's name who plays a sort of a rebel without a cause. He attends college but then disappears for a few years without a trace nor explanation. With parental guidance, he is a loose cannon but one heck of a speaker and orator. Melvin sees potential in this lad and invites him to tryout for the debate team. What do you know, Lowe passes the test and debates with explosive conviction.

Oddly, Melvin insists and chooses to write the debates. So his team has a scripted debate. Does he not realize this could impact his team? It does, when about to battle Harvard, Harvard changes the subject within 48 hours of the debate forcing the three Wiley teammembers to write their own affirmitive or negative arguments.

What an honor to make this debate team? They were able to travel around and see parts of the country they normally would not have seen.

Forest Whitaker has a powerful role in this film as well. He plays Dr. James Farmer Sr. who is also a Professor at this small black college. Farmer's son is on the debate team despite being much younger than the rest of the team. His son is incredible at researching topics but is unhappy that he is not able to debate. In other words, he grows tired of sitting the bench.

The team loses a charismatic member who is forced to quit because of Melvin's supposed communist leanings. Melvin never admits he is a communist but since he is rumored to be secretly heading and organizing private meetings with while and color share croppers, his enemies decide to spread rumors about him. In 1935 America, being labeled a communist, even before the Cold War began, was akin to being anti Jesus Christ. This is what undermines Melvin's progress despite only wanting equal treatment according to the law.

One of Melvin's enemies in the town is Sheriff Dozier who is played by the hard working John Heard. Usually Heard does not play controversial figures such as this one but he pulls it off well. This is a time in US history when equality between the races was few and far between. But Melvin is leading poor blacks and whites to stand up against the forces that wish to keep them down. He is doing this simultaneously while leading the debate team. It seems being on the debate team was almost akin as being on the hoop team. Though conventional sports or sports members are not discussed in this movie.

This movie has an outstanding quote that I have not heard since Viggo Mortensen uttered it in GI Jane. "I have never seen a wild thing feel sorry for itself." This was written by famed novelist D. H. Lawrence. Though I enjoyed this quote more in GI Jane than I did in this newer film.

This was based on a true story. Denzel did the same thing in a movie years ago called Antwone Fisher. This is where he gave Derek Luke a shot at making a name for himself. Denzel does the same here for a few other young actors and actresses. The culmination of this movie is when Wiley College defeats the ranking national champion in a debate at their school-Harvard. And Wiley College did not even have its stud Lowe coordinate the debate. Lowe turned it over to his female teammate and Farmer's son. All characters in reality went on to fight the good fight, have productive careers, and continue to work hard for themselves and the community.

This movie had a frightening scene when a black man was shown after he was burned to death. It appeared he was skinned before he was lynched. Or he was burned alive. Lowe in the movie said that sometimes blacks are skinned before they are lynched. Either way, it was an unlawful and horrendous act. Devious is not an accurate description, every man involved in this heinous act should have been shot immediatly after convicted of murder. The sad thing is, none of these barbarians would ever face trial. But they would be presented with the ultimate punishment on their judgement day.

Jurnee Smollett plays the female teammate Samantha Booke. Booke is an excellent debater and she turns this into a law career in the state of Texas. She participated in one of the Freedom Rides set forth by the inspirational leader Martin Luther Jr. later on in her life in Alabama. She speaks with passion and uses sound research to support her points of view.

In this final debate at the illustrious Harvard, Melvin was not in attendance. Melvin could not leave the state on condition of his arrest by the Sheriff. Melvin does arrive midstride into the debate though. He did not want to risk any interuption to the debate team if he tried to cross the border headed to the northeast.

This movie's music was nothing to write home about. There were a few humorous scenes. The movie was written well and there were some outstanding arguments made on both sides on every debate. The acting was solid and the script even superior. But it was not a blockbuster and not that eventful.

I allocate this movie three stars.***

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