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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Local opening date: December 25, 2007
Reviewed by Diane Carson
Given this election year, there isn't a more relevant film essay writer than The Great Debaters. But it isn't about presidential candidates, though they could learn a valuable lesson here. It's about the incomparable debate team from small Wiley College, Marshall, Texas, in the mid 1930s.

Based on a true story, poetic license is taken; for example, the important debate at Harvard was against the University of Southern California. But the heart of the film is pure and deeply moving precisely because, on the whole, it eschews histrionics in favor of intelligent analysis and commentary. The mid-30s in northeast Texas, as elsewhere, were deeply racist and sexist; director Denzel Washington never glosses over the negative elements. But his debaters get on with their work-to strengthen their minds, to hone their intellect. For in this story of excellence and hard work, a great deal more than winning a debate is at stake.

Director Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the son of a Missouri preacher. A formidable mentor, Tolson secretly helps organize poor sharecroppers, white and black, while teaching at all-black Wiley and coaching the debate team. For the first-time since he began teaching at Wiley in 1923, Tolson selects a female, Samantha, as one of the two debate team alternates, breaking another barrier-the gender one. A romance develops; jealousy simmers; the preacher father of the second alternate, 14 year old James Farmer, Jr. has misgivings; and, more importantly, a lynching occurs and an arrest for union action. Clear-eyed presentation of important history lifts what could easily have been a David and Goliath tale above any melodramatic pandering. But what The Great Debaters doesn't admit is that the Pi Kappa Delta debate society never officially acknowledged the most crucial victory since it didn't recognize black debaters before WWII. Nevertheless, this film gives them their due and the actors shine: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and all the others. It's particularly refreshing to see intellectual achievement celebrated and made exciting.

Denzel Washington does a fine job in the director's chair, never flamboyant as his smart technical choices serve the story. The Great Debaters has won the National Board of Reviews Freedom of Expression award.

At area theatres.

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