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DVD Review: The Great Debaters
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The Great Debaters DVDThe Great Debaters
2-Disc Collector’s Edition
Directed by Denzel Washington
Story and Screenplay by Robert Eisele
Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise
Release date: May 13, 2008

In The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a professor who nurtured and lead a black debate team to challenge segregation by debating white colleges and ultimately the pinnacle of educational facilities, Harvard.

Melvin Tolson, like all of the educators at Wiley College, strives to teach his students the power of education. When Professor Tolson chooses his four debaters: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett, Eve’s Bayou, Gridiron Gang), James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, Training Day), and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams, Stomp the Yard, Fat Albert) we as an audience do not question his selection, but immediately see why he has chosen these four gifted youths. Henry Lowe is the uber-intelligent renegade that hides behind his intelligence to cover the pain he has endured. Samantha Booke is an articulate woman who has the ability to take a difficult argument and break it down to a simple right or wrong question. Hamilton Burgess has the humor and wit that puts you at ease and makes the audience laugh and agree with him. James Farmer, Jr. is a child genius that has the academic acumen of someone twice his age but looks at the world with child-like wonder.

This movie flows magically and succinctly. One particular occurrence in the movie that struck a very personal accord with me happened when the students were driving cross country to a debate. I will not say what happens but, the lives of the four debaters will forever be changed. It is how they individually and as a group deal with this travesty that we see the strength of their character and their resolve to strive to be heard as an equal group.

I loved this movie. Not because the subject matter spoke to me personally but because it has the ability to speak to everyone on a personal level. Denzel has done a perfect job in directing and starring in this work or art. I don’t say many movies are works of art, but, when something is as haunting as this piece you will definitely NEED to say it deserves more that the category of “movie.”

DVD Bonus Features


Deleted Scenes
There are three deleted scenes in this feature (Samantha and Henry Kiss, Cake?, and Sheriff At Tolson’s House.) The scenes were interesting and in no way deterred from the movement of the movie. I give Denzel an A+ on cutting these scenes from the movie as they were not really needed.

The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective
Opra Winfrey, Producer, opens this feature discussing the historical significance of the Wiley debate team. In the 1030s in Texas hundreds of blacks were lynched. Marshall, Texas was notoriously segregated and Wiley College was considered an intellectual refuge for the black students and educators that attended and worked there.

That’s What My Baby Likes,” Music Video
A movie video filmed in a juke joint that Henry took Samantha to.

My Soul Is A Witness,” Music Video
A movie video with snippets from the Wiley’s teams debates cut in with scenes from the juke joint.

Theatrical Trailer
The trailer is a great representation of the movie. It is moving, realistic, inspiring, and chilling. It highlights the important fact that the movie is based on a true story.

Sneak Peeks
Grace Is Gone: This Sundance Winner stars John Cusak and is about a family coping with the lost of their wife/mother is the war.

Cassandra’s Dream: A film written and directed by Woody Allen. Colin Farrell and Ewan Macgregor star in this movie. From the trailer I could not really deduce what this movie is about.

I’m Not There: Bob Dylan’s life and stories. What more needs to be said, this trailer is awesome and I regret not seeing this on the big screen.

The Hunting Party: Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, and Joy Bryant star in this movie about going where no man has gone to score an interview.


The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music
Everything from juke joint to jazz and soul are in the movie. “That’s What My Baby Likes” and “My Soul Is A Witness” were recorded in Ardent Studios. These two pieces are remakes of authentic rural south juke joint music. In this feature there is also a shameless plug for the soundtrack of the movie. Wait, I need to revise the last statement, maybe the plug was not too overwhelming since it is the only one promoting the soundtrack on the compilation.

Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub
The score was recorded with an 85 to 90 piece orchestra in Abbey Road Recoring Studio in London, England in 2007. James Newton Howard was the primary composer and Peter Golub joined the team to aid in scoring the movie because the story moved him. The composers stayed away from period cliché music they adopted a general feeling of Americana by creating scores that were not targeted to a specific time frame, they went for timeless and got it! Musicians from all over the world were also used to keep the music fresh.

Learning The Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp
All of the debaters were required to attend a debate boot camp to immerse themselves in the art of debate. Denzel Washington set the camp up to show them how represent debaters in a movie because they needed to understand the process and form of debate.

Forest Whitaker Becoming James Farmer Sr.
Denzel Washington credits Forest Whitaker as being “one of the greatest actors of all times”, it is no wonder he asked Forest Whitaker to take on the roll this roll. James Farmer Sr. had a Ph.D. in theology and spoke seven languages. Forest Whitaker approached this roll as he approached every role he has been in, with feet first and great preparation. He executed this role masterfully. Oprah Winfrey also states “I hope that I get in my lifetime a chance to work with Forest Whitaker as an actor.”

A New Generation of Actors
A new group of talented actors were scouted and found for The Great Debaters. They worked with Academy Award Winners Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker and picked up subtle acting techniques from these great actors.

The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis
Sharen Davis collaborated with Davis J. Bomba to design and execute all of the period clothing and came up with subtle wardrobe selections to show the economic level of the lead cators. An example of this is she dated Samanta Booke’s (Jurnee Smollett) wardrobe to the 1920s to show that although she is fashionable, her family was not rich and could not keep up with all of the trends of the 1930s.

The Production Design of Davis J. Bomba
Davis Bomba explains how we created the production design of the movie. He used comfy color plates of brown, tan, and ochre to represent the areas where lead actors felt comfortable in the segregated world around him. Areas outside of this comfort bubble were in monotone black and white hues or were depicted very vibrantly. Bomba is credited as creating a great product with very little money and resources.

The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson
Two poems by Mevlin Tolson, Dark Symphony and Lamda, are presented in this feature.

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