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Movie Review: "The Great Debaters"

Tired of reading about steroids and the Mitchell Report?

Yeah, me too.

So while we wait for the expected announcement later today of the Kosuke Fukudome press conference, I wanted to tell you about "The Great Debaters", which will be released to theaters on Christmas Day. I had the opportunity to see a DGA sponsored screening a couple of nights ago.

The movie, based on real events, stars and is also directed by Denzel Washington, who plays a professor and debating coach at Wiley College, a black college located in Marshall, Texas, a small town not far from Shreveport. The year is 1935, and it's the Jim Crow South -- we see events that both define some of the political movements of the day (Washington's character, Mel Tolson, gets involved in union organizing), and we are constantly reminded that the "Negro" (that term is just beginning to replace the somewhat pejorative "colored" as the "correct" term of the times to refer to black people) is put in what white people feel is his "place".

Tolson holds tryouts for the debate team, and winnows the students down to four -- one of whom is someone who's clearly had a troubled past, one who can't stomach Tolson's political views and quits the team, a female student, and the fourth, whose character is only sixteen in the film, Denzel Whitaker, a 17-year-old actor who looks fourteen. The young Whitaker plays this young debater with great dignity and class; in the film his father, a doctor played also with the same quiet dignity by Forest Whitaker (who, despite a resemblance to Denzel Whitaker, is NOT his real-life father), both keeps him in line as a father would have in the 1930's, and also strongly encourages his education, in a belief that education can actually help him rise up out of the situation he was born into.

Tolson hones the debaters' skills and they begin to win debates against similar black colleges. When they try to arrange matches against other schools, they meet with the subtle racism of the time. At last, Oklahoma City University agrees to debate them, the first white college to do so, and while the debate is going on, half the white audience walks out.

The characters are well-drawn and speak realistic dialogue that doesn't sound like "movie dialogue". The climax of the film comes when Harvard University, whose national championship debate team has heard about Wiley's debate winning streak, invites them to come to Boston to debate them. No spoilers here -- go see this film, which has terrific performances as always by two of the best actors of our time, Washington and Forest Whitaker, and keep your eyes on Denzel Whitaker, who nearly steals the whole show from his elder counterparts. There will be Oscar buzz about this film, and justifiably so -- one of the best of the year.