The Great Debaters (2-Disc Special Collector's Edition)After reading reviews from both gushers and detractors, I found myself falling into the camp of the detractors without having even seeing a trailer. If a film with such high-powered leading men as Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker could fail to garner any Oscar nods I figured the detractors must have something to say. And so it was with much trepidation that I popped The Great Debaters into my dvd player. And no viewer was more surprised than me for how completely good this movie turned out to be.

There’s not enough praise I can heap on Denzel Washington’s prowess, both behind and in front of the camera. No other leading man (aside from the inimitable George Clooney) has demonstrated such a commanding ability in front of and behind the camera. And telling the story of Melvin Tolson and his Wiley College debate team of 1935-36, Washington has rarely been in better form. And as the infamous Dr. James Farmer Sr., Forest Whitaker makes an equally imposing figure. Though the two don’t share much screentime, the moments they do share together are crackling with life. What’s even more impressive is that the young stars of the film (Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and the surprisingly coincidentally named Denzel Whitaker) are able to stand on equal footing with these powerhouses of the cinema.

The way Robert Eisele’s script unfolds we learn of Melvin Tolson’s dedication to his students at the Marshall, Texas Wiley College and to the art of debate. We also learn that he’s involved in some rather shady dealings with sharecroppers and unions, some dealings that have him in hot water with the corrupt local law enforcement and the Texas Rangers. With the danger of cliche or melodrama lurking around every corner, this production manages to steer well clear of such problems and instead create a realistic portrait of racial intolerance, civil disobedience, and the power of determination in 1930s Texas.

By the time the film reached it’s resounding climax, after much intense deliberation, though not as much actual debate as I might have expected, I had a newfound respect for the art of filmmaking and Denzel Washington’s ability to tell a story.

Zach’s Rating: A-
Perfect For: Viewers looking for a rousingly well-acted drama
Stay Away if: Historical accuracy is more important to you than a powerful story

To purchase The Great Debaters, visit Amazon

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