Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Words as Weapons: The Great Debaters

An amazing piece of filmmaking that plays the predictable line well and overcomes stereotypical pitfalls of similar movies. Denzel Washington's previous big racial feature that he was in, Remember the Titans (by director Boaz Yakin), is considered a great sports movie. But the truth: it is only great in the way that it helps other filmmakers to avoid its mistakes. It is too sentimental and too Disneyfied. This movie can be the former sometimes, but it really not just a stand up and cheer movie. It is actually a real, serious take on racism and actually features a brief but disturbing lynching that shakes things up. Anyways, Denzel Washington is at the helm of this picture and plays debate coach Melvin B. Tolson well, as a ballbusting leader who will not take crap. Forest Whitaker is the second-biggest name, as James Famer, Sr., a big cheese at Wiley College, the school that this is all taking place at. John Heard co-stars briefly as the racist sheriff, who is seemingly laid back for such a man, but when you see what he does, you can erase that from your mind. All three of these men turn in good performances, but the movie belongs to the young actors led by Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and the amazing Denzel Whitaker (who was named after Denzel but has no relation to Forrest). Parker and Smollett are extremely good, but it is Whitaker's charm and poise during his final monologue that is enough to seal the deal on this movie. These actors are real finds, and they really carry the movie. The thing is, Denzel is the supporting character, but these guys (and gal) are up to the task of leading. And their performances are polished like the floor of Harvard, the school in which they debate. But this movie isn't perfect. The racism isn't dealt with extremely perfectly (especially Heard's character), and some of the subplots could have been better. But this movie doesn't need to be perfect to get its message across. It's good enough the way it is. Bottom line: when I picked this movie up at the video store, I wasn't expecting much more than an average tearjerker movie. But this movie, laced with humor and extreme thoughtfulness, blew me totally out of the water. It isn't worth a debate: this movie is outstanding. A

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