The Great Debaters
Director : Denzel Washington
Screenplay : Robert Eisele (story by Robert Eisele & Jeffrey Porro)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Denzel Washington (Melvin B. Tolson), Nate Parker (Henry Lowe), Jurnee Smollett (Samantha Booke), Denzel Whitaker (James Farmer, Jr.), Jermaine Williams (Hamilton Burgess), Forest Whitaker (Dr. James Farmer, Sr.), Gina Ravera (Ruth Tolson), John Heard (Sheriff Dozier), Kimberly Elise (Pearl Farmer), Devyn A. Tyler (Helen Farmer)
While Denzel Washington's choice of acting roles has been intriguingly varied over recent years, mixing noble saints with sadistic villains and every shade of conflicted inner turmoil in between, with The Great Debaters he seems intent on demonstrating that, when it comes to directing, he is most comfortable working within the well-worn formula of based-on-true-travails uplift. Following his 2002 behind-the-camera debut Antwone Fisher, Washington takes us back to the Jim Crow South to spin the tale of Wiley College, a tiny all-black school in East Texas whose debate team reigned supreme in the 1930s. Like Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters is a difficult film to dislike despite its formulaic nature; you can see every development and every narrative turn coming from a mile away, but Washington is a good enough director and his young cast is more than strong enough to shoulder the load of familiarity and still make it moving.
Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, a poet, teacher, and social rebel who took a post teaching English at Wiley and headed up the school's debate team. Tolson is a tough-love professor--part drill sergeant, part John Keating--who inspires with the power of his language and the relentlessness of his passion (his speech about the origins of the word “lynching” in response to a student questioning his background is a genuinely powerful moment that lingers throughout the entire film). Tolson holds rigorous try-outs for the debate team and selects a handful of members: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), an on-and-off student who is obviously brilliant, but slightly troubled; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), an aspiring lawyer who is the team's first female member; and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the 14-year-old son of Wiley's seven-language-speaking theology professor (Forest Whitaker).
The general trajectory of the narrative is obvious, as the debate team takes on increasingly larger and more impressive opponents, first the larger black schools, then a smaller white university, and finally the crème de le crème: Harvard University. Essentially, it's Hoosiers set in the world of competitive debate. Screenwriter Robert Eisele does little to enhance the formula, relying heavily on our desire to have expectations fulfilled, rather than challenged. This is not to say that the film doesn't have its difficult moments: An unexpected backwoods run-in with a lynch mob provides a genuinely tense scene, but it's ultimate purpose is not so much to visualize the horrors of the era than it is to provide the crucial piece of evidence for the climactic debate, which is, not surprisingly, about race. Eisele also intercuts a number of subplots, including Tolson's controversial involvement with unionizing local sharecroppers, James Farmer's strained relationship with his father, and a love triangle among the debate team members.
Viewed alongside Antwone Fisher, it is not hard to see why Denzel Washington was attracted to The Great Debaters. Both films center on the intersection of racial and emotional hardship; in this respect, Henry Lowe is very much like a slightly softer version of Fisher. Washington's central theme seems to be the positive transformation of anger into social productivity. The message in The Great Debaters is the power of language to change the world, and the various debates are mini-portraits of ignorance being slain by righteous rhetoric. Of course, it helps that the Wiley debaters always get to debate on the “correct” side of any issue; thus, we get to see them grow as a team while also standing in for the voice of social justice. This is a narrative convenience that works to the film's advantage, although in hindsight it makes you realize that the film is not so much a saga about the victories of a debate team as it is a celebration of their arguments.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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