Great Debaters Essays

The Great Debaters Essay

"The Great debaters"

This was my second time watching the movie called "The Great debaters," but it seemed like it was my first time since the emotional scenes and the profound aspect of the movie left me amazed and inspired once more. All the characters in the movie had their own moment to shine which makes the movie even greater and while watching, you always wonder what is coming next.

The character I identify with the most is Melvin Tolson, the teacher who assembled his debate team members tactfully and thoroughly. It is certainly not because the character is played by a tremendous actor, the two-time academy award winner, Denzel Washington; it is because Tolson, the character played by Washington, not only recruited these talented young speakers, but he found ways to inspire and energized them to greatness, even to what appears to be impossible to achieve. I believe that is what teaching should be about. Furthermore, the focus of this character on education as an important tool for freedom cannot let you without thinking that school has to be more than passing classes or grading, but a powerful weapon in the hands of whoever possesses it.

The second character that attracted my admiration as a speaker in the movie is Samantha Booke. As blacks were being mistreated and persecuted just for being black, this reality was even worse for black women in Texas. But this fact did not stop Samantha to believe in herself and her ability to be part this debate team. She will be the first woman to be in the Wiley college debate team and when given the chance to debate, she is not shy, but demonstrated a lot of emotions in her speeches, bravery, confidence, and passion.

As I said in my first paragraph, I believe every character in the movie has their moment to show their talents as a speaker. Henry Lowe, played by Nate Parker, performed gracefully in his first debate against. He is very persuasive in his speech, confident, well-prepared, and knowledgeable. He also has a great voice tone. He shows a great deal of...

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“The Great Debaters” is aware that debating, an activity synonymous with nerdiness, needs a shot of adrenaline to be sexy to a mass audience. Early in the movie Tolson barks with the ferocity of a Marine Corps drill instructor, “Debate is a blood sport.” As the team starts winning, his severity never diminishes. The debates themselves are swiftly edited compendiums of best-of moments.

The four teammates handpicked by Tolson are Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a handsome, clean-cut youth with a lurking bad-boy streak; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), a dutiful eager beaver whose family pressures him to drop out when Tolson’s radical political organizing comes to light; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), a strait-laced aspiring lawyer and soft-edged proto-feminist; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a preacher’s son whose father (Forest Whitaker) keeps him on a tight leash.

Despite his name, the actor playing James Jr. is unrelated to either Mr. Washington or to Forest Whitaker. It is worth noting that the senior Farmer was the first African-American in Texas to earn a doctorate. His son, a leader of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, founded the Congress of Racial Equality.

This being Hollywood, a soupçon of romance is required. The movie dawdles only as long as necessary on the pudgy, cow-eyed young James’s hopeless infatuation with Samantha, who becomes romantically involved with Henry.

“The Great Debaters” doesn’t shy away from showing the humiliation and persecution of blacks in the Jim Crow South. When James Farmer Sr., accompanied by his family, accidentally runs over a pig, his humiliation at the hands of the owner and his redneck buddies makes your stomach turn.

Later, Tolson, driving home from a debate with his students, comes upon a lynching. The flashes of the hideous atrocity sear your mind, and when the mob, still riled with blood lust, chases the car, your heart is in your throat. Afterward, Henry’s shame and stifled fury drive him to a self-destructive spree.

Robert Eisele’s screenplay imagines a smooth historical arc. The characters’ reactions to these events, it implies, sow the seeds of the civil-rights movement, which is also foreshadowed in the debates, whose topics too conveniently address civil-rights issues. Strangely, the Wiley College team always argues the progressive view. Its initial push to break the color barrier in college debating by competing with a white college in Oklahoma is too neatly paralleled by the debate topic: whether blacks should be allowed to attend state universities. A more intellectually subtle, less manipulative movie would have had the Wiley team arguing at least once against African-American interests.

Even though the film makes it clear that the team’s speeches are prepared in advance by Tolson, the literary and historical references blithely tossed around by the team members show astounding erudition, and their speaking voices carry only the tiniest hint of an East Texas twang.

For dramatic purposes the setting of the climactic debate has been changed in the movie to Harvard from the University of Southern California, where it actually took place. Again the issue is too neatly selected: nonviolent civil disobedience versus the rule of law.

The wonder is that “The Great Debaters” transcends its own simplifying and manipulative ploys; it radiates nobility of spirit.

“The Great Debaters” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has mild sexual situations and some strong language.


Opens nationwide on Tuesday.

Directed by Denzel Washington; written by Robert Eisele, based on a story by Mr. Eisele and Jeffrey Porro; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Hughes Winborne; music by James Newton Howard and Peter Golub; production designer, David J. Bomba; produced by Todd Black, Kate Forte, Oprah Winfrey and Joe Roth; released by the Weinstein Company and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.

WITH: 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) and Kimberly Elise (Pearl Farmer).

The Great Debaters

  • DirectorDenzel Washington

  • WriterRobert Eisele

  • StarsDenzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise

  • RatingPG-13

  • Running Time2h 6m

  • GenresBiography, Drama

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    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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