The Great Debaters: Movie Review
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With the support of a passionate cast, second-time director and Academy Award winner Denzel Washington brings another incredibly moving story to life in The Great Debaters.
Under his direction, the film comes together quite well on screen, making it a great achievement in cinema. It’s inspirational beyond words, much like the first film Washington directed - Antwone Fisher (2002). In fact, it just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture.
The film hinges on the heartrending performances by two of the best actors of our day, Denzel Washington and fellow Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, and each of the young actors who starred as the Wiley College debaters from Texas (Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, and Denzel Whitaker – no relation to either actor).
The Great Dialogue
Words. That’s the name of the game. According to Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters is, at its core, a sports movie focusing on the triumphs of the underdog. It’s a war matched on the stage of debate, where teams battle it out with their brains instead of their brawn.
Inspired by true events, The Great Debaters follows the journey of three students on the Wiley College Debate Team as they meet the challenges of their day. Set in the Jim Crow South in 1935, these youngsters are confronted with the reality of brutally racist crimes against fellow blacks. But through the dynamic teaching of their outspoken mentor, Prof. Mel Tolson (Washington), they soon realize the power they have to influence a positive change across the nation. Their defining moment comes when the team is invited to debate at Harvard, a platform they had once only dreamed about. You almost feel like you can change the world after seeing this movie.
So many lessons are woven through the scenes in this film, but the main message is that through hard work and education you can make a lasting difference. An inspirational teacher compels his students to become the better version of themselves.
It’s reminiscent of Robin Williams’ unforgettable portrayal of Prof. John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society (1989). Settings and circumstances are noticeably different, but the two movies are similar in their emphasis on influence. The power of free thought pushes each student to use their gifting to excel beyond even their own expectations. Full use of celebrated literature from Langston Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and more make their mark on the story as well. It’ll make you want to open your literature book from college and study the words these writers so skillfully penned.
First Reactions… Lasting Impressions
Hands down, the best part of this movie is the cast. Their performances make the story come to life and touch your heart. Don’t be surprised if you cry tears of sadness as you’re faced with the atrocities mankind has committed and tears of joy as these young debaters overcome odds. Especially impressive are Jurnee, Nate, and little Denzel’s oratory skills. They debate with such elegance and conviction, fully taking on the essence of the characters they are playing.
One tiny complaint, only a critic would find, is that the movie needs to be edited a little tighter. A few of the scenes were slow, yet they didn’t get to the point that a moviegoer would be uncomfortable. Other than this minor thing, The Great Debaters is truly a magnificent film that will inspire all ages.
Kid Inappropriate Content
To be honest, at least one scene in The Great Debaters may make some parents of younger kids cringe. This warning is in reference to a scene in the movie where two of the young debaters are engaging in premarital sex. It’s not a prolonged sequence with about a two-second shot of the two from a distance, but it is present in the film. Unfortunately, this blip of a scene restricts the reach of the movie to audiences of all ages.
The Great Debaters is a great film for sparking conversation, especially with your kids. One topic of discussion will definitely be of the intense hatred and racism portrayed in the movie. It’s rated PG-13 for the brief sexuality as well as scenes that include lynch mob violence and a tiny bit of language (profanity and racial slurs).
The Last Word
You’ll be impressed with the award-deserving performances and inspired by its message of determination and hope. All in all, this is a must-see movie for young people and adults alike. Take your older kids to see it if just for the sole fact that it will inspire them to dig deep and begin to appreciate their education. Maybe it’ll even encourage them to explore the fun that can be had in debating.
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