"Who is the judge?"
"The judge is God."
"Why is he God?"
"Because he decides who wins or loses. Not my opponent."
"Who is your opponent?"
"He does not exist."
"Why does he not exist?"
"Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the truth I speak."
This is the mantra instilled into the minds of his students by poet/scholar/professor Melvin B. Tolson as he prepares them to take on the world. Tolson taught speech and English at Wiley College, a small black university in Marshall, Texas. Though he was far away in the Lone Star State, Tolson is considered a contemporary to the Harlem Renaissance and his peers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, for example. There, he assembled an award-winning debate team. It is the team which Tolson assembled in 1935 that is the focus of the film "The Great Debaters." At a time when African-Americans were anything but equal in a country founded on the principles of "all men are created equal," Tolson's debate team faced off against white students and soundly defeated them. Many of Tolson's students would go on to become pivotal members of the civil rights movement which was still a long way off.
Denzel Washington works both sides of the camera as the film's director while also playing Tolson, in another excellent role for the Oscar winner. Putting together the line-up for his team, Tolson includes Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the requisite troubled youth. The two first meet when Tolson prevents Lowe from stabbing an angry husband whose wife Lowe danced with. Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) left her own studies and enrolled in Wiley to become the first female member of the school's debate team. James L. Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is the son of James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker), a preacher and the first black man to earn a Ph.D. in Texas. The final member of the team is Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), who has served on the team previously.
The team quickly pulls together in defeating some of the most prestigious black colleges in the South. Mailing out letters and clippings, Tolson is able to convince several white colleges to allow his team to debate their students. They argue the pro-side of integration against the University of Oklahoma and win. The long, hard road of debate season becomes rockier due to Tolson's activities as a labor activist. His work to organize a union for the poor sharecroppers comes to the attention of Sheriff Dozier (John Heard), the typical ugly Southerner. Due to concern for his safety and growing word that Tolson may be a Communist, Burgess resigns from the team. Later, Tolson and his students come across a lynching, barely escaping with their lives. It is this horrifying moment that shakes them to their very core. However, the team must persevere when they receive an invitation to face the Harvard team in a debate that will be broadcast across the nation.
It's hard to imagine a time when the nation was so divided. For most of us, we weren't even born when ideas like Jim Crow and segregation were the norm. Still, that era of American history isn't that far off. Really, it's only been forty years since the days when men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers fought and gave their lives for equality. For the students in "Great Debaters," their time is likewise not that far removed from the time of slavery. This turbulent time is never hammered home better than in a pair of harrowing scenes. The first finds the Farmer family on a dusty country road where Mr. Farmer, Sr. accidentally kills a pig belonging to a pair of creepy white fellows in overalls. Despite, Farmer's education and standing as an important community leader, to the whites he is nothing more than a "town nigger." With a revolver in hand, the two demand Farmer hand over a paycheck for $25. The second scene is the aforementioned lynching which they come across on a starless night with only the sickening orange glow of torches.
I have sung the praises of Denzel Washington on several occasions. He has a screen presence like no other and is one of the most charismatic actors working in Hollywood today. "The Great Debaters" is another winning performance in a winning film that certainly sits well on the shelf with "Inside Man" and "American Gangster." We'll just forget about "John Q" and the remake of "Manchurian Candidate." Forest Whitaker has always been a strong actor, but it isn't until recently that he has taken his career to another level thanks to an Academy Award winning performance as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" and his role as Lt. Kavanaugh on one of my favorite dramas, "The Shield." Whitaker plays a polar opposite to those previous characters as a religious, family man. While Washington and Whitaker are the film's two biggest stars, they only play supporting roles, taking a back seat to the relatively unknown actors portraying Tolson's students. In a bit of kismet, filmmakers cast the aptly named Denzel Whitaker (no relation to his namesakes) as Farmer Jr. who is the heart of the team and the film.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This is a great transfer as expected from such a recent release. The colors runs towards earthy tones to play up the period.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with an alternate track dubbed in French which is also in 5.1. Obviously, this is a dialogue heavy film. Each line comes in crisp and clear.
"Great Debaters" is available in a single disc edition and this 2-disc collector's edition. Disc 1 contains the following extras:
The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective (23:06) begins with an introduction from Producer Oprah Winfrey and features interviews with the cast and crew along with interviews from actual members of the Wiley Debate Team. Among those interviewed are Henrietta Bell Wells, upon whom the character of Samantha Booke was loosely based on, and Melvin Tolson's son, Dr. Melvin Tolson Jr.
Rounding out Disc 1 are music videos for the songs "That's What My Baby Likes" and "My Soul is a Witness", the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for other Genius/Weinstein releases such as "Cassandra's Dream", "I'm Not There", and "The Hunting Party."
Plug in the second disc and you'll find:
The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music (11:59) is a featurette focused on the film's soundtrack where the filmmakers worked with an assortment of recording artists to capture the authentic sounds of the time through jazz, blues, gospel, etc.
Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard & Peter Golub (10:45) follows Denzel Washington collaborating with the composers to create the film's score. We get talking head interviews along with footage from inside the recording studio.
Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp (21:53) elaborates on the debate camps which prepared and trained the film's cast for their roles.
Forest Whitaker On Becoming James Farmer, Sr. (3:58) is a short featurette as the cast and crew talk about Forest Whitaker coming on board the project and what it was like working with him. Of course, they all say it was great.
A New Generation of Actors (9:45) focuses on the casting of the young actors and how they prepared for their roles which were based on real people.
The 1930's Wardrobe of Sharon Davis (5:28) is a featurette about the costume design. Davis discusses putting together the outfits for the main characters along with gathering clothing from vintage stores to dress background characters.
The Production Design of David J. Bomba (8:57) takes a look at the work to create an authentic representation of the 1930's.
The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson is a text-based extra allowing you to read two of Tolson's poems, Dark Symphony and LAMBDA.
"The Great Debaters" is part inspirational teacher story and part underdog sports film. I almost had bad flashbacks to "Dead Poets Society" when Washington entered the scene and stood on top of his desk. Thankfully, he didn't lead the class into a reciting of "O, captain, my captain." As for the latter, "Debaters" does follow the standard formula of the team coming together, embarking on a win streak, facing insurmountable odds, then rallying back to score a victory in the final game. Even if you don't know anything about the Wiley debate team, it's obvious they'll win in the grand finale. That's not an indictment against the movie. "The Great Debaters" is well-written with a cast of talented actors that rises above any clichés. It's an old-fashioned, feel-good film.