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HomeNewsArchives'The Great Debaters' a Sharp Turn for Denzel Washington

'The Great Debaters' a Sharp Turn for Denzel Washington

Jan. 16, 2008 — In a small northeastern Texas town in the mid 1930s, the debate team of Wiley College, a small Methodist African-American institution, won national recognition, beating the champions, the University of Southern California.
The movie uses Harvard in place of USC. Other than that, "The Great Debaters" is a real-life story, one that caught the attention of Denzel Washington, who directs and stars as debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, a complicated poet and educator, who leads his team to the championship.
This is about as sharp a turn as Washington could make from his recent portrayal of the violent gangster Frank Lucas in "American Gangster." It's more Washington's style. As Lucas, it was hard to believe he could be evil, such is Washington's charisma.
As Tolson, he has the critics in the palm of his hand for his acting, if not for his work behind the lens.
"Washington's direction is pedestrian, but his fiery performance injects spitfire into the conventional teacher-student formula," says Sean O'Connell at filmcritic.com. "Washington's passion infects his young co-stars, who are uniformly impressive. Young Denzel Whitaker — who, believe it nor not, is related to neither Denzel Washington nor Forest Whitaker — stands out from Tolson's trio. He plays James Farmer Jr., the sympathetic son of the school's president, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker)."
Some critics say the movie has all the usual underdog story trappings, but that's OK.
Michael Phillps of the Chicago Tribune says the movie is "pure Hollywood, not without its share of storytelling cliches and golden-toned inspirational teaching moments, but you know what? The results really are inspirational."
Roger Ebert says, "The movie is not really about how this team defeats the national champions. It is more about how its members, its coach, its school and community believe that an education is their best way out of the morass of racism and discrimination. They would find it unthinkable that decades in the future, serious black students would be criticized by jealous contemporaries for 'acting white.' They are black, proud, single-minded, focused, and they express all this most dramatically in their debating."
Tolson holds grueling auditions for his team, finally selecting four: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) who drinks, but is "formidably intelligent" according to Ebert; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) an excellent debater; a 14-year-old girl Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollet) researcher, and the only female; and James Farmer Jr., who, in real life, went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality.
The movie had an impact on at least one local administrator. In a letter to the Source Open Forum remarking on a local school group — members of the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School World Religion Club — May Adams Cornwall, Waste Management Authority director, wrote, "Many of our young people have not honed the art of conversation and the skill of intellectual debate. You can truly be the inspiration embodied in Professor Melvin Tolson of 'The Great Debaters,' coming here due to our conscious leaders like Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington. A club event to view this movie together is highly recommended."
The movie runs two hours, seven minutes. It's rated PG-13 for strong thematic material, violence, disturbing images, language and brief sexuality.
It is playing at Sunny Isle Theaters.

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