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Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Gina Ravera, John Heard
Writing Credits:
Robert Eisele (and story), Jeffrey Porro (story)

When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope.

In 1935, Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington) is a professor at Wiley College Texas who wants to encourage his students to have big dreams. So, he forms and coaches a local debating team that aggressively fights for the chance to engage Harvard's championship team in a match.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$3.604 million on 1164 screens.
Domestic Gross
$30.226 million.

Rated PG-13

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 124 min.
Price: $32.95
Release Date: 5/13/2008

DVD One:
• “The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Music Videos
• Theatrical Trailer
• Sneak Peeks
DVD Two:
• “The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music” Featurette
• “Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub” Featurette
• “Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp” Featurette
• “Forest Whitaker on Becoming James Farmer, Sr.” Featurette
• “A New Generation of Actors” Featurette
• “The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis” Featurette
• “The Production Design of David J. Bombs” Featurette
• “The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson” Featurette

• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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The Great Debaters: Collector's Edition (2007)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 24, 2008)

Denzel Washington made his directorial debut with 2002’s mediocre Antwone Fisher. After five years away from the director’s chair, he gives it another shot with 2007’s The Great Debaters.

One of those “inspired by a true story” deals, Debaters comes set in 1935 at Wiley College in Texas. Washington plays Melvin Tolson, an English professor and also the head of the school’s debate team. When Tolson chooses a new squad, he brings back Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) from the prior year’s group, but he takes new blood for the other three spots. He selects fiery, angry Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), aspiring lawyer Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the son of the school’s leading theology professor (Forest Whitaker).

Much of the film examines the interpersonal relationships among the participants as well as the progress of the debate team; matters become more intriguing when the Wiley students get unprecedented opportunities to debate white colleges. In addition, Tolson tries to organize a union among local labor, an endeavor that leads to tension and the involvement of the town sheriff (John Heard). The flick follows these threads and the way they interconnect.

Going into Debaters, I assumed it’d be another in a long line of “triumph of the human spirit” flicks. Indeed, it looked like it’d offer a more bookish version of Glory Road, another movie in which African-Americans overcome the odds to succeed.

To some degree, Debaters does follow that line, but the side with Tolson’s labor organization gives it another bent, and not a particularly welcome one. To some degree, the film finds itself in a no-win situation. If it concentrated solely on the exploits of the debate team and their battles, then one could easily criticize it for being another Glory Road or Miracle - or Bad News Bears, for that matter. We’ve seen eight million movies about teams that succeed against the odds, and this one could’ve fallen into that trap.

On the other hand, the side about Tolson’s labor organizing and related controversies doesn’t quite meld with the rest of the story. The pieces fail to fit neatly, and the result tends to feel contrived. I get the impression the filmmakers don’t have enough confidence in the root story about the debaters, so they decided they needed to explore greater societal issues to make the movie “important”.

All of this leaves Debaters as a bit of a mess. Washington can’t quite figure out which story he wants to tell, so he combines the two into an unsatisfying melange. Actually, saying the flick focuses on two tales isn’t quite accurate, since it really splits into thirds; in addition to the debates and Tolson’s legal endeavors, we spend a lot of time with the relationships among the debaters.

This undercuts the end result. If the flick stuck with the team, it’d seem more satisfying. Since it can’t decide where to focus, the “jack of all trades” approach creates a film without sufficient depth. The Great Debaters certainly isn’t a bad film, and it’s clearly a well-meaning one, but it tries to cover too many bases and falls short of its goals.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

The Great Debaters appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie came with a mediocre transfer.

Many of the problems connected to sharpness. Though a lot of the flick seemed accurate and concise, too many shots looked soft and ill-defined. Some edge enhancement created a few of these concerns, but those haloes couldn’t explain all of the oddly blurry images. I noticed no jagged edges, but a little shimmering popped up, primarily via clothes. Source defects remained absent.

Period pieces usually go with subdued tones, and that held true with Debaters. The flick used an earthy, somewhat sepia look that satisfied; the colors were consistently warm. Blacks appeared dark and tight, but shadows were a bit dense. Some low-light shots seemed a little more opaque than I’d like. The softness was the primary issue, though, and that lack of definition made this a “C+” transfer.

A movie about a debate team doesn’t offer many opportunities for rocking audio, so the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack remained low-key. Speech dominated, and not much else cropped up along the way. Music did show nice stereo imaging, and environmental material added a little life to the proceedings. Nothing stood out as memorable, though, and that was fine given the subject matter.

Audio quality also satisfied. A few lines showed light edginess, but most of the dialogue was natural and concise. Music sounded full and warm, while effects seemed acceptably accurate. I thought that this was good enough for a “B-“.

When we head to the extras on this two-disc set, we begin with DVD One’s The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective. This 23-minute and six-second featurette mixes movie shots, behind the scenes elements, and interviews. We hear from producers Oprah Winfrey and Todd Black, actor/director Denzel Washington, screenwriter Robert Eisele, and actors Jurnee Smollett and Forest Whitaker. We also get notes from some folks who attended Wiley College back in the 1930s. The program looks at the film’s era and facts behind the story, the characters, and elements of the real tale.

“Perspective” works best when it looks at the truth behind this fictionalized edition, though it doesn’t do so in a terribly strong manner. It feels a little fluffy and fails to become a deep examination of the elements. I do like the notes from the former Wiley students, though, especially since we hear from Melvin Tolson’s son.

Three Deleted Scenes fill a total of four minutes, 52 seconds. These include “Samantha and Henry Kiss” (1:34), “Cake?” (2:32) and “Sheriff At Tolson’s House” (0:45). “Kiss” doesn’t add much to the Samantha/Henry relationship in the final flick, and “Sheriff” is just a brief intro sequence with little to it. “Cake?” isn’t bad, though, as it brings out a bit more humanity in the Forest Whitaker character.

Two music videos appear. We find clips for “That’s What My Baby Likes” and “My Soul Is a Witness”. Both predominantly feature movie shots, and neither becomes memorable.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, we get some Sneak Peeks. This area includes ads for Grace Is Gone, Cassandra’s Dream, I’m Not There and The Hunting Party.

Over on DVD Two, we find seven separate featurettes. The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music goes for 11 minutes, 59 seconds as we get notes from Washington, music supervisor G. Marq Roswell, recording engineer Jeff Powell, and musicians Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson. The show looks at the musical selections, the performers and the recording of the tunes. “Heritage” can be rather self-congratulatory as it discusses the movie’s authenticity, but it nonetheless provides a good view of the musical choices and the performances.

Next comes the 10-minute and 45-second Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub. Obviously this program looks at the film’s score, as composers Howard and Golub discuss their music, how it fits into the story, and its recording. I could live without all the shots of the recording sessions, as those tend to be dull; seriously, how interesting is it to see someone wear headphones and play a flute or a violin? (Okay, one of the violinists is pretty cute, which is probably why we see her more than any of the others.) At least the composers’ comments add some value, though not enough to make this a memorable piece.

For Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp, we discover a 21-minute and 53-second show that features Washington, Smollett, elderly former Wiley debaters Dr. Thomas Freeman and Henrietta Bell Wells and actors Glen Powell, Jr. and Nate Parker. We see the training the actors went through to prepare them for the movie’s debate scenes. Too many of the comments tend toward praise, but I like the footage of the actors’ practice sequences. Freeman’s remarks help add some perspective as well.

We hear from a leading actor in Forest Whitaker on Becoming James Farmer, Sr. During the three-minute and 58-second reel, we hear from Washington, Winfrey, Whitaker, Black and actor Kimberley Elise. We find out how Whitaker got the role and aspects of the character and performance. Mostly this just becomes a recitation of the greatness displayed by both Whitaker and the real Farmer.

More performers become the focus of the nine-minute and 45-second A New Generation of Actors. We hear from Washington, Black, Winfrey, Smollett, Parker, and actors Jermaine Williams and Denzel Whitaker. The show tells us a little about the actors who play the debaters as well as their characters. I expected a fairly fluffy piece, and that’s what I got. A few interesting notes come along for the ride, but mostly “Generation” sticks with praise for the performers.

By the way, it would be easy – and logical – to assume that Denzel Whitaker is Forest Whitaker’s son. That would be wrong. They have the same last name and look a heck of a lot alike – Denzel really passes for Forest’s son – but apparently they’re not related. What are the odds that they’d cast two unrelated, very similar-looking actors with the same last name to play father and son? The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis. In this five-minute and 29-second clip, we find comments from costume designer Davis and production designer David J. Bomba. We learn how Davis approaches her work in period flicks like this along with some specifics of the clothes she designed. A lot of good content emerges in this short program.

The Production Design of David J. Bomba runs eight minutes, 57 seconds and offers remarks from Bomba, Washington and Black. This becomes a companion to the Davis piece. Bomba lets us know about his research and his choices for various design elements. Like the costume-oriented program, we receive a fair amount of interesting material here, and some good behind the scenes shots help it as well.

Finally, The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson splits into two areas: “Dark Symphony” and “LAMBDA”. Both provide text screens that exhibit the work of the man who inspired the film’s lead character. These are cool to see for archival purposes.

The package also includes a booklet. It provides photos from the film and the set as well as text production notes. It serves as a nice addition.

I appreciate the effort behind The Great Debaters, but the end result leaves me cold. The movie tries too hard to be all things to all people, and it simply doesn’t satisfy. The DVD offers mediocre picture, acceptable audio, and a roster of sporadically useful supplements. Neither the DVD nor the flick do much for me.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.25 Stars Number of Votes: 4
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