- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on www.commonsensemedia.org.

‘The Great Debaters’

Rating: PG-13

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 13 and older.

**** (out of five stars)

Running time: 123 minutes

Common Sense review: Earnest until it hurts, “The Great Debaters” follows the 1935 Wiley College debate team from its modest beginnings in Marshall, Texas, to national prominence. Based on a true story and produced by Oprah Winfrey, the film has a lot of the characteristics of the typical “underdog” movie: personal hardship, social oppression and resilient spirits.

Coached by English professor/farmers’ union organizer Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington, who also directed), the titular team fortunately features a set of wonderful young performers, including Nate Parker as Henry Lowe and the terrific Jurnee Smollett as Wiley College’s first female debater, Samantha Booke.

Tolson embodies worthy life lessons for both his students and his colleague, theology professor James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), the strict father of 15-year-old team member James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who in real life grew up to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality. Among these lessons are his resistance to a brutally racist local sheriff (John Heard) and his determination to overcome the pervasive racism of their time. As Sam puts it after one poignant victory, “My weapons were the words. I didn’t need a gun. I didn’t need a knife.”

The team overcomes a number of trials — a brief and suitably tender affair between two members, their coach’s incarceration and blacklisting, some rebellious drinking, and a harrowing scene in which they witness a lynching — and their debate topics tend to underscore broader struggles (“Resolved: Negroes should be admitted to state universities”). Ultimately, they make it to a final showdown with Harvard (although in real life, it was the University of Southern California).

Despite its formulaic plot and overstated, string-heavy score, “The Great Debaters” reminds viewers of an important early moment in civil rights history, showcasing the resilience of youthful idealism and the wisdom that comes from experience.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this inspirational fact-based drama includes unvarnished discussions and representations of 1930s racism, including a brutal lynching scene.

Families can talk about the appeal of movies based on true stories. What can today’s viewers learn from seeing a movie like this? What messages do you think the film is hoping audiences will take away? What does this movie have in common with “underdog” sports stories? Families also can discuss how accurate they think the movie is. Why would filmmakers tweak any facts when making a movie based on a true story?

Sexual content: Henry flirts with a man’s wife at a bar; women appear in close-fitting dresses, showing cleavage, sweating and dancing suggestively. In a later scene, James watches Sam on the dance floor and imagines dancing with her and her kissing him. On a boat, Sam and Henry kiss; scene dissolves to sex in bed (romantic filtered light and close-ups). Henry kisses a girl he has picked up at a bar in front of Sam, upsetting her.

Language alert: Includes several mild expletives and use of a racial epithet — the latter both by racist characters and by Tolson, who uses it repeatedly during one “lesson” directed at Henry.

Violence alert: A central scene shows a lynching, with a burned, hanged black body and white lynchers (including a white child watching, undisturbed); the black debate team observes in horror, then drives away afraid. Early violence includes a bar fight. A car hits a hog, leaving it bloody and dead; the white men who own it threaten the black driver and his family. James finds Tolson at a union meeting; white men arrive with sticks and farm tools, chasing the farmers away; Tolson leads James to safety. A prisoner held by the sheriff appears with a bloody, swollen eye. Henry and James fight briefly.

Social-behavior alert: Debate team members are mostly determined and noble, although occasionally rebellious and raucous. Racists are especially villainous. Coach is complicated and smart.

Drug/alcohol/tobacco alert: Drinking and drunkenness in bars (Henry is involved in these scenes). Henry, upset by the lynching, goes out drinking and comes home drunk. Tolson smokes a pipe.

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