Wednesday, July 16, 2014
"The Great Debaters" with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, Jr. (2007)
Imagine being the man who trained some of the greatest orators of the civil rights era. That’s the story of Professor Melvin B. Tolson, faculty member of little Wiley College in Texas during the 1930’s. His debate team consisted of some of the brightest stars who would later inform the Civil Rights Movement.
Jurnee Smollett plays Samantha Booke; Nate Parker plays Henry Lowe; Denzel Whitaker plays James Farmer, Jr., and Jermaine Williams plays Hamilton Burgess. These four comprise the debate team assembled by professor Toland. Forest Whitaker, Jr. (no relation) plays the father of James Farmer, Sr. Those two are exceptional in their portrayal of the sometimes tense; but always loving; relationship between the two.
Tolson trains his young debaters by challenging them at every turn. He even has them train their voices so they can be heard distinctly and clearly. Using a rowboat as his lectern he has them say the same mantra over and over again for days, each time rowing a bit further from shore while exhorting the team to speak louder so that he can hear them.
As they grow in confidence they beat every team they encounter. The other teams are always African-American. They soon discover that the pressure is very different when they face white opponents. There is always the racial disparity to overcome, but they manage to remain undefeated, a fact which professor Tolson uses to procure the opportunity of a lifetime; to be the first African-American debate team to debate at Harvard.
While this entire story unfolds, young James Farmer, Jr. learns that Professor Tolson is working with the local farmers to form a union; a very dangerous practice even for white men back in those days. While the boy is intrigued with the prospect of Civil Rights, his father seems to lives in the shadow of fear. This confrontation between father and son is one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the film; eclipsing in some ways even the final debate sequence.
The whole film is done with attention to detail and the result is perfection. This is a film which you will sit through even in front of your own television, eschewing the usual snacks and breaks available only a room or so away. An excellent screenplay by Robert Eisele; from the original story by Jeffrey Porro; coupled with excellent direction by Denzel Washington, combine to make this film a modern classic.