Great Debaters, The (2007)

Rated: PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.
Length: 123 minutes
Grade: BCAA=A-
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $40 million ($30 US, $10 DVD)

Directed by: Denzel Washington, well known as an actor but whose only previous movie was Antwone Fisher.
Written by: Robert Eisele, who hasn’t written anything worth mentioning, mostly stuff for television.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forest Whitaker, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, and Devyn Tyler.

In this true story from 1935 Marshall Texas, a place where lynchings are common, an extremely talented debate teacher tries to break racial barriers by getting his undefeated students to debate against a white college while he also secretly struggles to help establish a local sharecroppers union.

Entertainment Value: B
Anything Denzel Washington does is likely to be at least above average, and this is certainly just that. As a former debater and debate judge, I found some of the technical elements of the movie to be strange, but not really problematic, and I understood the need for some unnatural dialogue that would explain debating to a general audience. The characters are interesting, and the scenes are fairly powerful.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality C, Violence C, Language B, Illegality NA
There are a few realistically scary scenes of white racism toward blacks, including a lynching shown after-the-fact, and other examples of minor violence. There is a lot of alcohol use and several sexual plot elements and some shown sexuality. PG-13 is just right.

Significant Content: A
This is a movie that shows two competing cultures for blacks to choose from: that of the mind, refined, powerful, and dignified or that of the backwoods bar with loud music, dancing, sexuality, and alcohol use. But it also shows courage as an important character trait, especially against the odds, and religion is heavily present as well since one of the characters’ fathers is a minister. Also, the movie clearly shows the domesticating effects the right woman can have on a wayward single male. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie that presents debate as a valuable endeavor.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
If good art draws you in and has something interesting for you to chew on once you’re inside, this is great art. Aside from all the wonderful, rich discussions alluded to in the debates over such issues like educational integration and civil disobedience, there is this brilliant demonstration of the tension and conflict between the two worlds available to young black American males as it shows up in the life of the main character, Henry Lowe. It’s also fascinating to see blacks discussing civil disobedience thirty years before MLK, when their only influences were Gandhi and Thoreau.

Discussion Questions:
~Why does Henry find it so difficult to lead a respectable life and give up his partying? Should he have to? What eventually makes him willing to do so? What parallels would you draw between his struggle and the tensions in the Christian church between emphasis the intellectual and the emotional/experiential? Should church be more of a party or a seminar?
~What do you think of the practice of the debate coach writing arguments for the debaters?
~Should Tolson have kept his political beliefs to himself in the various situations when he was confronted about them?
~Who is right about civil disobedience? Is it possible to honor the principle of obedience to the law by breaking the law when it is wrong?
~How useful is it for people to be reminded of the true ugliness of historical racism?
~Does racism come in degrees? How might someone who doesn’t like seeing blacks move into his neighborhood react to the lynching and racism in this movie?
~Are words capable of being weapons? Should they be used this way? What are the limits of such use? Did Jesus use words as weapons?
Overall Grade: A-
Very good, and in parts extremely disturbing in a useful way.

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