Denzel Washington’s second foray into directing (after Antwone Fisher) takes the basic structure of an inspirational sports movie and turns it on its head, as a small-town school goes up against the Ivy-League giants of the nation. The action and strategy, however, revolve around words and ideas, not athletics. Telling the true story of an East Texas “negro college” during 1930’s segregation, Washington coaxes expert performances from his actors, using the mental contest of debate to examine issues of prejudice, civil disobedience, and fear that affected (and continue to affect) America.
If this all sounds too similar to something you’ve seen before, know that the difference is in the details; this is well-written, thought-provoking stuff that scores the neat hat trick of being uplifting without watering down the world’s harsh realities. There are moments that are truly haunting and audiences will be impressed to be more loving and tolerant, to appreciate how far we’ve come in race relations, and to reflect on how far we have to go. They also just might be inspired to nurture their minds more through reading and conversation. It is also one of the rare Hollywood features to portray Christianity in a positive light.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: The Great Debaters is Rated PG-13 and is recommended for teens and up. There is a small amount of mild profanity and multiple uses of the “n-word” in a historical context. An unmarried young man and young woman have sex (very briefly seen from distance kissing under covers ), with heartbreaking consequences. Racial violence is portrayed rather shockingly, but purposefully, including the image of (SPOILER) a lynched body.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: All people of all races are deserving of being treated with respect, integrity, and humanity. Education, intelligence, and the effectively expressing a point to debate are all key to changing hearts and minds.
BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES…
“One thing is clear from the beginning of The Great Debaters: Denzel Washington, who directed as well as stars in the film, knew that for it to inspire, motivate, educate, shame and grip, first of all it had to entertain. So he turns the tale…into a stunner, almost a jubilee of emotion and suspense. The movie is full of great performances” – The Washington Post
“All in all, The Great Debaters is one of the happiest surprises of the season; it’s marvelously edifying entertainment you should not miss” – The New York Observer
“Succeeds in bringing a lump to the throat without, as is de rigueur these days, insulting our intelligence” – The Christian Science Monitor.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.