The Great Debaters on DVD

The Great Debaters on DVD. I never really cared about debate growing up. I understood the quiz bowls, spelling bees, and math contests. There were right answers and wrong answers. Debate seemed to be more about style and how you spoke rather than what you said and that emphasis made little sense to me. I didn’t comprehend the seemingly arcane procedures and certainly had no clue how judges determined the victor. Nowadays, the only debate exposure for most of us is the circus that is part of our political process. But after watching this film about the Wiley College debate team, I have a better understanding of these competitions and newly found respect for those that participate in them.

The movie, based on real events, is set at an all-black school in segregated Texas during the Depression years of the 1930s. Denzel Washington plays Professor Melvin Tolson, the demanding coach who tries to develop the minds and spirits of the four students who make up the Wiley team. He pushes them hard in order to get them ready to compete against the best black colleges and white schools as well. The film shows how the specific training they receive from Tolson in research, public speaking and rhetoric, when combined with their inherent abilities, leads them to become important members of their communities: a minister, a lawyer, a civil rights leader and shows the value of education in general as a way of improving one’s self and creating opportunities for a better future.

Washington is great in almost every role he takes, but he seems to excel in portraying real-life characters beginning with his Oscar-nominated role as Steve Biko, the activist in South Africa, in Cry Freedom and his Oscar-winning performance as Private Trip, a member of the Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, in Glory. The list continues with Malcolm X, boxer Rubin Carter (The Hurricane), high school football coach Herman Boone (Remember the Titans) and most recently drug lord Frank Lucas (American Gangster).

The bonus feature, in which Washington interviews real graduates of Wiley and others who knew Professor Tolson, is excellent as well. Washington also directed the film and in this interview discusses some of the dramatic licenses that he and the producers took and his views on the changing nature of the art of debate.


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