Ingedients of a Great Debate
Power, belief, emotion and conviction they are 4 ingredients which can turn an average movie into a good movie, a good movie into a great movie. They are the ingredients which can bring a movie to life, which can make a story feel real and it is these 4 ingredients which make "The Great Debaters" a great movie. From Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson drilling his debate team to Samantha Booke slapping the face of Henry Lowe everything is delivered with power, belief, conviction and emotion. These 4 ingredients are not the only reasons why "The Great Debaters" is such a great movie, the true story on which it is based most certainly is a great vehicle but it is these 4 elements which turn it from being an inspiring good movie to an inspiring great movie.
As English Professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington - American Gangster) hand picks his debate team with plans of not just turning them into the best black debate team but an equal team to those at white colleges and universities. Leading them on a winning year Melvin writes to the big Universities to try and get his team an opportunity to compete with the best white team, especially debating champions Harvard. But not only is there racial tension to contend with as lynch mobs and segregation are the norm but Tolson's out of school activities as he tries to unite the farmers causes issues for those in the team and their families.
For those who are not aware "The Great Debaters" is based upon a true story, how much of that true story makes it to the screen I do not know and to be honest I do not care because Robert Eisele's screenplay is brilliant and to be honest the whole true story aspect of the movie isn't played upon. As such we have this story of the Wiley College debate team put together by English teacher Melvin B. Tolson with a goal of making them the best black debate team in the country. One success leads to another and to the history making debate as they are eventually invited by Harvard to challenge their champion debate team.
This is but part of the story because whilst we watch the debate team get drilled into shape by the inspirational Tolson we also see what is happening outside of the class room. There is Tolson's leadership of share croppers, the local police trying to stamp out his attempts to unite the farmers and of course a whole lot of racial tension. We witness a tense run in between the Farmer family and two hick farmers when Dr. James Farmer accidentally runs over a pig and the fear of will he be beaten fills the atmosphere. And then there is a lynch scene, a powerful, dramatic and emotional scene which highlights what life was like for Negro's in a world where they were not treated equally or were safe.
None of which is done in a sensationalist way, what we witness may be uncomfortable, a blooded face of a black farmer makes you shudder, but it is a portrayal of what life was, of how things were and more importantly how wrong they were. But it never preaches the wrongfulness of this, as director Denzel Washington hasn't needed to because the story makes it all so clear without have to reinforce it. When James Farmer Sr. has that confrontation with the pig farmers it feels so uncomfortable that these two pig farmers would strike that much fear in a person just because of the colour of their skin.
Now all of this merges so we watch as the things which happen outside of the classroom mould the way the team work, how witnessing a lynching impacts them emotionally but also makes them grow. And each of these members of the team from the conservative Hamilton Burgess to the worldlier and well read Henry Lowe reacts differently to things. This variety of characters, the way they grow and interact makes everything so believable and tangible and it is not just the students who are part of the debaters which make it so tangible. Watching the way that Dr. James Farmer and Melvin Tolson react to each other also is fascinating, believable and powerful.
But what makes all of this come to the life the inspiring tale of the debaters set against the racial backdrop is those 4 ingredients power, belief, emotion and conviction. Each actor be it Nate Parker as Henry Lowe or Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr. become these real people who react to situations be it hiding on the floor of a car to feeling injustice when the Sheriff forcefully arrests Melvin. It is because every actor doesn't just act, doesn't just try and become a character but delivers a real person that the heart of the movie comes to life that you feel that you are alongside these people during troubled times.
What this all boils down to is that "The Great Debaters" is a great movie, an inspiring movie which as you would hope connects with you on a deeper level than just entertainment. But whilst there are a lot of reasons why the "The Great Debaters" is great it is those 4 ingredients power, belief, emotion and conviction which take it from being good to being special, to making you feel connected from the opening scene to the final credits.