Marshall, Texas, described by James Farmer, Jr. as “the last city to surrender after the Civil War,” is home to Wiley College, where, in 1935-36, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and his clandestine work as a union organizer, Professor Melvin Tolson coaches the debate team to a nearly-undefeated season that sees the first debate between U.S. students from white and Negro colleges and ends with an invitation to face Harvard University’s national champions. The team of four, which includes a female student and a very young James Farmer, is tested in a crucible heated by Jim Crow, sexism, a lynch mob, an arrest and near riot, a love affair, jealousy, and a national radio audience.
User Reviews: In his sophomore effort, actor-director Denzel Washington has created one of the best films of the year, The Great Debaters. Never trying to be the cliché coming of age tale of student-teacher relationship that becomes like a bad aftertaste like past efforts, as Mona Lisa Smile; the film takes a high road to transform its narrative into a beautiful canvas for Washington to paint on like forgotten masterpieces like Stand and Deliver and Dead Poet’s Society. Adapted from a Tony Scherman article by Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, the film follows an astonishing pace and never forcing anything down the audience’s throat rather, uses images and manifestations for its armor.
Washington’s achievement here is pulling the performances of this new, unknown young actors. Denzel Whitaker as the innocent, curious James Jr. is wonderful in exposition of character and gives the best child performance of the year. At 17, young Whitaker should have no problem coming into his own as a great young leading man in the future. Nate Parker in a momentous breakthrough performance indulges the audience as Henry, the angry young college student dealing with the inequalities of African-Americans in the South. In the end it’s the tenacious performance by the beautiful Jurnee Smollett that holds the emotional premise of the film together. Not only dealing the racial barrier, but the barrier of being a woman, a woman running away from her past and trying to settle into a world dominated by the differences of her own. Smollett’s debate speeches are felt with every word, every expression, and every influential command. Smollett’s performance is the ignored performance worthy of consideration for awards of 2007.
Not expecting too much from last year’s Oscar winner Forest Whitaker probably helped him in watching the film. Whitaker reminds the viewer of how great he was for years before The Last King of Scotland. This is a true superior work on the actor’s resume. So how Denzel Washington do in directing himself? Not glossing as much as Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner past works, Washington does an admirable effort and takes the supporting role (yes it’s supporting) and acts as the film’s right hand man. Adding his charisma, potency, and veteran thespian persona, the film is a success.
In terms of Oscar’s chances, costume designer Sharen Davis nominated for her designs in Ray and Dreamgirls is worthy of citation. David J. Bomba’s production design is quite easy on the eye and captures the era of tyranny and persecution. With the potential to be a late surge to the Academy Awards race, The Great Debaters delivers on every level encompassing the richness of love, the evil of oppression, and the beauty of triumph.