On Screen: “The Great Debaters”

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NO ARGUMENT | Washington’s ‘Debaters’ is a great film

Admist the hoopla surrounding the Christmas season’s big-budget, high-profile movies (“I Am Legend,” “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) I’d heard nothing about “The Great Debaters” until I saw a preview of it prior to watching “National Treasure” on Sunday afternoon.

“Debaters” is loosely based on the true story of the Wiley College debate team, established in the 1930s at the predominently black school by professor Melvin Tolson. Tolson is portrayed in the film by Denzel Washington, who also directed. It’s a powerful and inspiring movie and definitely worth seeing because of the wonderful story and the superb performances by Washington, Forest Whitaker and a cast of mostly (until now, anyway) unknown young actors.

The movie review website www.pluggedinonline.com said at a time when rapper 50 Cent is a role model and Snoop Dogg has a “family” reality show, “Debaters” is a film which “doles out realism.”

“It’s about true empowerment, which requires the passionate engagement of one’s mind and will,” the review says. “It rejects postmodernist wish-wash for a clear understanding of truth. It indirectly rejects much of today’s hip-hop culture and suggests that the only bling worth anything is a college diploma, a polished mind and a shiny debate trophy… It shamelessly glamorizes education, perseverance and the beauty of the human intellect, and it reminds us that the path to equality and justice doesn’t run through MTV.”

Wiley College is located in Marshall, a city of about 24,000 people some 140 miles east of Dallas in Texas. The debate team hasn’t existed for a number of years, but Washington – who won Academy Awards for his performances in “Glory,” another historical film, and “Training Day” – just recently donated $1 million to the school to help re-establish the team.

You can read more about the “real” story behind Tolson and the debaters here, but hold off if you’re planning on seeing the film. (It’s better than “Book of Secrets,” which is entertaining but not great. As far as other reviews for “Debaters,” Herald critic Neil Morris gives it a B-minus, saying it was a bit too formulaic for him.)

Watch the movie trailer here…

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