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greatdebaters.jpgMany times we run ourselves and our children away from movies that depict segregation and struggle. We cover our eyes, close our ears and refuse to read the books that tell of those who went before us to pave the way. I myself am a victim, having shied away from movies like “Rosewood” and “Amistad” because my stomach and my heart were too weak to watch. But Denzel Washington’s latest, “The Great Debaters,” shines an inspiring light on a subject that brings many to tears. The film retells the story of Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) the Wiley College professor who fought against all odds in the Jim Crow South to create a championship debate team and unify a small Texas town.
Tolson is a radical who likens himself to Jesus and that spirit resonated throughout the film as faith guides the characters through dangers seen and unseen. From the onset of the story we hear a prayer recited–coincidentally one of Washington’s favorite–as we are introduced to Tolson. He is a passionate professor and on the verge of craziness but he also has another side that puts him in danger of ruining his career. Nevertheless his fight is for the good of his people in a town that is still quite segregated despite how it appears. His aim is to create a succesful debate team out of a selection of approximately 20 students and he does so with that Denzel Washington intensity. The results are bad boy Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), partial scaredy cat Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), son of a teacher/preacher man James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker–no relation to Denzel or Forest) and the breathlessly beautiful but merciless Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollet).


Never have I seen a cast so perfectly suited for their parts–and each other–but then again, if you are praying about who to cast in which role then it is to be expected that the outcome would be flawless. These young actors truly embodied the role of black people in the Jim Crow South. The fear, the pain and the joy in the midst of sorrow was excellently portrayed. They rode the rollercoaster of amazing highs–winning debates against majority institutions–and devastatings lows–watching a man get lynched and being in danger of getting lynched themselves–as if they were industry veterans. Moments like the latter were raw in their depiction and hard to stomach but it was also a great reminder of how far we have come by faith.
I dare say that these young people captured my heart moreso than Washington and Forest Whitaker–who played the stern father of James Farmer, Jr. It isn’t to say that either actor did a poor job in capturing the screen, it is just that the relatively unknown young actors truly owned their roles in this movie and that made it much more meaningful. We expect Washington to be intense, to raise his voice, and to show us his big toothy grin. We expect Whitaker to play an authority figure who starts out cold and ends up showing us his heart of gold. But neither of those things are as moving as watching young people attempting to inspire their own generation and succeeding at it.
I can think of no better reason to see the “The Great Debaters” than to have the opportunity to watch young actors reach their peak in the midst of great veterans like Washington, Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey–one of the producers of the film. Knowing the odds against a normal black boy or girl, the movie felt like art imitating life. Every moment was magical but not because it was beautifully directed or produced–it was indeed, but because every person in the film committed to telling a story that would touch the hearts of millions. So if you are looking for true inspiration, great acting and a bit of a history lesson, check out the “The Great Debaters” which opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

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