Inspiring - Film Review
The Great Debaters
Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whittaker
Directed by: Denzel Washington
This is a great story based on real events that most of us had never heard of. It's an Oprah movie so you know it's got to have something pro-black and inspiring, but it doesn't get so impractical that you need to shut off your DVD player!
The movie is based on a debating team from Wiley College, a small black institution in rural Texas, which performs extraordinary feats. Their secret is their coach. An unconventional teacher played by Denzel Washington (who else eh?), and who is also the Director of the movie. Forest Whitaker, as James Farmer Sr., the school president and the father of one of the debaters, James Farmer Jr. is the ideal man on whom Washington's acting capabilities bounce off and watching the two of them in action makes the movie what it is.
The participation in this enterprise of Washington, Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and the Weinstein brothers should actually have drawn crowds (provided the film isn't cursed by being described as "uplifting," though it is) but I don't think this movie – which I am reviewing an year too late, managed to do that – which is a pity.
The revelation in this film is the performances of the three principal debaters: Jurnee Smollett as Samatha Booke (with an "e," as she proclaims when she tries out for the debate team), Nate Parker as Henry Lowe (also with an "e" as he announces in response to Samantha's declaration) and Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr. (It's an amusing coincidence, but he is unrelated either to Denzel Washington or to Forrest Whitaker!)
You may have seen Jurnee Smollett earlier in her career when she was a "cute kid" and a promising actress. This film could be her portal to stardom. In addition to being a gorgeous young woman, she's also an accomplished actress, ready for bigger parts in the future. You'll also be impressed with her colleagues, people whose names you may have never heard.
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 such as in 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.
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. You don't have to be black to find this film engrossing; I'm not. All you need to be is (a) a human being and (b) someone who appreciates a good movie. It just happens to be about a difficult period in American history, the rural South in the 1930's. It just happens to be inspirational and uplifting and all that good, boring stuff that cause your eyes to roll when that's how the critics describe it. But it's better than uplifting. It's Good and it's Real.
Tagline: When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope.
He said/She said: We do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do.
Watch it if you liked: Remember the Titans
Movie Hall of Fame: Maybe