Great Debaters

The Great Debaters

4.5 9
Director: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett

Cast: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett

     
 

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Drawing inspiration from the true story of a temperamental debate coach who molded the students of a small East Texas college into a formidable team that gave even Harvard's elite squad a run for their money, Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters features the director himself as the ambitious educator, and Forest Whitaker as

Overview

Drawing inspiration from the true story of a temperamental debate coach who molded the students of a small East Texas college into a formidable team that gave even Harvard's elite squad a run for their money, Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters features the director himself as the ambitious educator, and Forest Whitaker as the resentful father of a student whose loyalties now lie almost exclusively with his coach. Melvin B. Tolson (Washington) is the kind of educator who truly recognizes the remarkable power of knowledge. An outspoken Wiley College professor who boldly challenged the discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the 1930s, Tolson's recognizes that his young debate students possess the spark of a new generation. Convinced that they could invoke great change if given the confidence and tools needed to do so, the tireless educator implores his students to take responsibility for the future while furtively attempting to protect them from his clandestine role as an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Chief among Tolson's promising young students is a 14-year-old prodigy named James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Farmer's father, James Sr. (Forest Whitaker), is a renowned scholar and an important presence in the emerging student's life. Yet despite his formidable reputation, James Sr. has not yet learned how to truly harness the power of knowledge through action and assertion. James Jr. has seen the raving effects of racism all around him, and longs to live in a future where no one must be in fear simply because of the color of their skin. Other talented debaters on Tolson's team include fiercely independent student Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), and Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett) -- the first ever female ever to join the Wiley College debate team. While most educators may not have recognized the remarkable potential of assembling such a disparate team, Tolson's unique vision truly set him apart from the pack as the team begins to experience a series of consecutive victories on their road to challenging Harvard at the National Championships.

Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide
Denzel Washington impresses both in front of the camera and behind it in The Great Debaters, his second feature as a director. Although debate teacher Melvin Tolson is a stock character from Washington's repertoire -- a firebrand given to rousing speeches and a stoical sense of righteousness -- it's also a typically strong performance. Besides, it's really the other characters and details that make The Great Debaters shine. For one, production designer David J. Bomba and art director John Jensen have given us a handsomely dressed and wholly authentic version of East Texas and Boston of the 1930s, which simultaneously feels lived in and pops off the screen. But it's the actors who populate that setting who bring it to life. Most impressive may be 16-year-old Denzel Whitaker -- who, despite his name, bears no relation to either of the film's co-stars (Washington and Forest Whitaker, though the young actor was actually named after Washington). Young Whitaker commands his range of emotions in a way that's truly unusual for an actor his age, and likewise, he commands the most attention during his ensemble scenes. Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker, as the other two central debaters, are more than capable in flanking Whitaker -- Smollett overcoming her character's initial timidity to show the passion smoldering inside, and Parker fighting powerful demons and urges that cloud his imposing intellectual skills. In its meaty content, The Great Debaters leaves few stones unturned when it comes to the stimulating social issues of the day, be it Southern racism, the welfare debate, labor politics, or the role of women in society. The Great Debaters is constructed more or less as an underdog sports story, and in that sense it contains few surprises. It's the details of the journey, and the precision of the performances, that make this one worth watching.

Product Details

Release Date:
05/13/2008
UPC:
0796019810708
Original Release:
2007
Rating:
PG13
Source:
Weinstein Company
Region Code:
1
Presentation:
[Wide Screen, Color]
Sound:
[Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround]
Time:
2:04:00
Sales rank:
3,378

Special Features

Deleted scenes; The Great Debaters: An historical perspective; "That's What My Baby Likes," music video; "My Soul Is a Witness," music video

Related Subjects

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Denzel Washington Melvin B. Tolson
Forest Whitaker James Farmer Sr.
Nate Parker Henry Lowe
Jurnee Smollett Samantha Booke
Denzel Whitaker James Farmer Jr.
Jermaine Williams Hamilton Burgess
Gina Ravera Ruth Tolson
John Heard Sheriff Dozier
Kimberly Elise Pearl Farmer
Devyn Tyler Helen Farmer
Trenton McClain Boyd Nathanial Farmer
Ritchie Montgomery Deputy
Jackson Walker Pig Owner
Tim Parati Pig Farmer
Robert X. Golphin Dunbar Reed
Justice Leak Harland Osbourne
Glen Powell Harvard Debater #1
Brad Watkins Harvard Debater #2
Brian Smiar Harvard Dean
Damien Leake Wilson
Voltaire Rico Sterling Paul Quinn Debater #1
Steve Rider Paul Quinn Debater #2
Gordon Daniels Paul Quinn Debate Judge
Donny Boaz Oklahoma City College Debater #1
Sam Whisnant Oklahoma City College Debater #2
Bonnie Johnson Dr. Jennings
Charissa Allen Benita
Michael Beasley Trudell
Gary Mathis Enormous Man
George Wilson Samuel
Fahnlohnee R. Harris Clementine
Harold Evans William Taylor
J.D. Evermore Captain Wainwright
Sharon Jones Lila
Kelvin Payton Joseph
Southey Blanton White Labor Organizer
Michael Mattison White Sharecropper #1
Jeff Braun White Sharecropper #2
Milton R. Gipson Prairie View Professor
Frank Ridley Security Guard
Jeremiah Kissel Radio Announcer at Harvard Debate
Jack Radosta White Man at Lynching
Marcus Brown Howard Debater #1
Alvin Youngblood Hart Juke Joint Musician #1
Dominique Flemons Juke Joint Musician #2
Justin Robinson Juke Joint Musician #3
Rhiannon Giddens Juke Joint Musician #4
Ahmad Powell Fisk Professor
Gregory Nicotero Puppeteer
Gino Crognale Puppeteer
Michael Deak Puppeteer
Alex Diaz Puppeteer
Gavin Greenaway Conductor

Technical Credits
Denzel Washington Director
Molly Allen Co-producer
Tim Antwine Stunts
Kevin Beard Stunts
Bobby Beckles Stunts
Howard Berger Makeup Special Effects
Todd Black Producer
David J. Bomba Production Designer
Gregg Brazzel Stunts
John Breinholt Editor
Toby Michael Bronson Costumes/Costume Designer
Nikki Brown Makeup
Willie D. Burton Sound/Sound Designer
Denise Chamian Casting
Dorian Cheah Sound/Sound Designer
Renee Dodson Clapp Costumes/Costume Designer
Xiomara Comrie Camera Operator
David Crockett Executive Producer
Sharen Davis Costumes/Costume Designer
Robert Eisele Original Story,Screenwriter
Kate Forte Producer
Andrée Fortier Costumes/Costume Designer
Lex D. Geddings Stunts
Peter Golub Score Composer
Latoya Green Makeup
Thirl R. Haston Stunts
Ren Heeralal Costumes/Costume Designer
Jim Henry Stunts
James Newton Howard Score Composer
John Newton Howard Score Composer
John R. Jenson Art Director
Joe Williams Stunts
Mark La Bonge Camera Operator
Krystle Lamoreaux Costumes/Costume Designer
Linda Lazar Makeup
Jack Little Stunts
Jack Lynch Special Effects Supervisor
Meriwether Nichols Costumes/Costume Designer
Gregory Nicotero Makeup Special Effects
Eric Norris Stunts
Jono Oliver Asst. Director
Jeffrey Porro Original Story
Robert Powell Stunts
Pamela Rittelmeyer Camera Operator
Frank Rose Costumes/Costume Designer
G. Marq Roswell Musical Direction/Supervision
Joe Roth Producer
Philippe Rousselot Cinematographer
Liz Staub Costumes/Costume Designer
Susan Thomas Costumes/Costume Designer
Russell Towery Stunts
Lauren Wade Costumes/Costume Designer
Rachel A. Walker Costumes/Costume Designer
Bob Weinstein Executive Producer
Harvey Weinstein Executive Producer
Guss Williams Stunts
Hughes Winborne Editor
Oprah Winfrey Producer

Scene Index

Disc #1 -- Great Debaters
1. "My Soul Is a Witness" [5:15]
2. The Harlem Renaissance [4:42]
3. The Hot Spot [5:33]
4. Melvin Tolson's Debate Team [4:51]
5. The Pig Farmer [3:56]
6. Debate Training [7:16]
7. Tolson, the Labor Organizer [5:26]
8. Farmer, Jr. Defies His Parents [5:00]
9. The First Debate [4:30]
10. The Winning Streak [2:44]
11. Dinner at Tolson's House [3:44]
12. Debating Oklahoma State University [4:37]
13. Melvin Tolson & James Farmer, Sr. [3:23]
14. Henry Lowe & Samantha Brooke [5:06]
15. Tolson's Arrest [5:59]
16. Tolson's Message [2:13]
17. Lynching [8:30]
18. The Howard Debate [2:17]
19. An Invitation to Debate Harvard [4:20]
20. Traveling to Boston [6:38]
21. Change of Debate Topic [2:57]
22. Sacrifice [4:23]
23. The Harvard Debate [8:31]
24. Victory [5:38]
25. Epilogue/End Credits [9:02]

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The Great Debaters 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Working-Scribe_Aberjhani More than 1 year ago
When reading about what may be described as the lesser celebrated heroic figures of the Harlem Renaissance, we rarely get a definitive look at just how complicated and sometimes dangerous their everyday lives were. In fact, until the past ten years, many defined the period primarily by its well-known literary, musical, and artistic elements while overlooking the fact there was any political component to it at all. THE GREAT DEBATERS corrects both oversights by giving us an extraordinary portrait of poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson (1898-1966) portrayed with convincing restraint by Denzel Washington, who also directed the movie. At the same time, it delivers an exciting story filled with the creative intellectual genius that characterized the Harlem Renaissance, the thrill of youthful romance, and the painful loss of innocence.

Tolson, historically, is known largely as the celebrated author-poet of "Rendezvous with America" (1944); "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" (1953); and "Harlem Gallery" (1965). But we meet him in The Great Debaters, prior to his literary fame, as a professor of English at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. By day he teaches and guides his students through the passion-filled topics of the era: labor rights, race relations, public welfare policies, and personal ethics. By night he is a labor organizer who runs the risk of imprisonment or getting lynched when he meets with Whites and Blacks to convince them to organize unions to protect their rights as workers. His efforts cause him to become branded as a communist, and therefore distrusted as a threat not merely to labor laws (or the lack of any significant ones at the time) but to American democracy.

Nate Parker as Henry Lowe, Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Brooke, and Denzel Whitaker as 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr. all give inspired performances in their roles as Tolson's brilliant student debaters who endure challenge after challenge before earning an invitation to debate the team at Harvard. With the odds stacked solidly against them, they nevertheless pull off an historical win. Just as significant as the final team's triumph, is the footnote identifying these students as future community leaders and history-makers in their own right. Henry Lowe would go on to become an influential minister, Samantha Brooke a lawyer, and Farmer a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Much has been made of the fact that The Great Debaters is the first major film project on which media empress Oprah Winfrey (one of the film's producers) and two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington have worked together. Of equal significance, if not greater, is the fact that in addition to Washington the movie features powerhouse Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker as Dr. James Farmer, Sr. How many movies are there, after all, in which two Academy Award-winning African-American actors play characters of historical consequence like Tolson and Farmer? More important than the novelty is the contrast between the two, somewhat like the classic divergence noted later between Martin Luther King Jr.'s political philosophies and those initially espoused by Malcolm X. The differences between Tolson and Farmer, however, appear more subtle and that very likely is due to Robert Eisele's amazing screenplay.

by Aberjhani
author of "Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance"
and "ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love"
VinodPalSingh More than 1 year ago
History presents startling facts related to our identity ... Including our cruelty. Contrary to our assertions we tend to divide people on various grounds. This film is one, out of the many movies, on the subject and is based on a true story. The film is nicely made.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this movie is so inspirational
MagiSci More than 1 year ago
A superb movie with a great story, exemplary performances, excellent casting and deft, solid direction. I enjoyed it immensely!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another excellent Denzel Washington movie taken from a true story. Great talent in movie including Denzel.. Can watch this more than once.
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