| An unprecedented historic event occurred in 1935 when a national championship debate was held between a small all-black school, Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, and a prestigious, predominantly white university. Harvard stands in for the factually correct University of Southern California.
Debate is merely the vehicle that underlines the real message of the movie: Education is a powerful tool that breaks down barriers and overcomes ignorance.
This movie is a condemnation of the Jim Crow South. The deplorable climate of segregation that existed is accurately portrayed. Injustice, lynching and mob rule were the order of the day. Fear and shame forced African-Americans to tread lightly.
Professor and forensics team coach Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) was an inspirational beacon of hope. His lectures taught his students to think. He drilled his debate team in fundamentals. The oratory style of presentation combined logic and emotion. This mental sport used rhetoric as the weapon that allowed people to stand up and be heard on radical ideas.
Two old pros (Washington and Forest Whitaker) are joined by a trio of newcomers to put on an acting showcase.
Denzel Whitaker (no real-life relation to Forest) plays James Farmer Jr., the brilliant 14-year-old son of a strict disciplinarian college president (Forest). His best line is, “We do what we have to do, so we can do what we want to do.” This young man conveys a wide range of emotions in a remarkable debut. His character would later become a pioneer of the civil rights movement and the founder/leader of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Jurnee Smollett plays Samantha Booke. She is a lovely and passionate feminist with aspirations to be a lawyer. Nate Parker is cast in the role of Henry Lowe. He is handsome with a rebellious spirit that comes through in his well-reasoned arguments
This deserving movie was recently honored with the Freedom of Expression Award by the National Board of Review. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe in the best picture, drama, category.
This is the second directorial effort by Washington (“Antwone Fisher” was his first). Hats off to Oprah Winfrey for spearheading this project and getting it made in her role as a producer.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"