The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise

Directed by Denzel Washington
Rolling Stone: star rating
5 2
Community: star rating
5 2 0
December 25, 2007

Directed by Denzel Washington the road to good is of ten paved with good intentions. Director-star Denzel Washington and producer Oprah Winfrey want to tell an inspirational true story in The Great Debaters. So why cut corners to do it? Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, the professor and poet who coaches his all-black Texas debate team from Wiley College to victory against Harvard in 1935. My guess is the inspiration would have increased exponentially the closer it stayed to the truth. For starters, Wiley beat the University of Southern California, not the vaunted Harvard. And the Wiley team was forbidden to claim victory because it did not belong to the national debate society, which refused to admit blacks until after World War II. A downer ending, sure, but one that digs deeper into our country's shameful history with racism. The actors are all solid, especially Denzel Whitaker as fourteen-year-old Wiley debater James Farmer Jr., who would go on to found the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. A few strong scenes show James rebelling against his strict scholar father (the reliably excellent Forest Whitaker). Sadly, pure fabrication dominates the weak scenes of pudgy James mooning over fellow debater Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). To his credit, Washington – following his 2002 directing debut, An twone Fisher – works in searing moments of civil rights history, including a lynching witnessed by the team. That moment speaks more eloquently than anything in Robert Eisele's formulaic script. Resolved: that Hollywood is detrimental to truth. Debate.

Movie Review Main Next


Community Guidelines »
loading comments

loading comments...


Sort by:
    Read More

    Movie Reviews

    • joe Nicolas Cage
      star rating
      Roadside Attractions
    • star rating
      Summit Entertainment
    • star rating
      Paramount Pictures
    More Reviews »
    Daily Newsletter

    Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

    Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
    marketing partners.


    We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

    Song Stories

    “Stillness Is the Move”

    Dirty Projectors | 2009

    A Wim Wenders film and a rapper inspired the Dirty Projectors duo David Longstreth and Amber Coffmanto write "sort of a love song." "We rented the movie Wings of Desire from Dave's brother's recommendation, and he had me go through it and just write down some things that I found interesting, and they made it into the song," Coffman said. As for the hip-hop connection, Longstreth explained, "The beat is based on T-Pain. We commissioned a radio mix of the song by the guy who mixes all of Timbaland's records, but the mix we made sounded way better, so we didn't use it."

    More Song Stories entries »