December 23, 2007

The Great Debaters

Oprah said I was the star...
No, she said I was the star...

Grade: B –
Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, and Jurnee Smollett
Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Commendable and engrossing yet stirring and formulaic, The Great Debaters is cut from the same cloth as most inspirational Hollywood uplifts. It is blessed with many aspects: a compelling backstory, a fine cast, a workmanlike script, and, perhaps more important, the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey. There is also the temptation to lump this dramatization of the 1935 all-black debate team at Marshall, Texas' Wiley College in with such recent similarly-themed films as Glory Road and Pride. The difference, however, is that while the history of white America has been told to such a degree that Hollywood now draws upon NFL special-teams walk-ons as the subjects for their sports movies, most of the chapters in the African-American experience have been lost, while those that have not yearn to be moralized.

In his sophomore directorial effort, Denzel Washington tracks the story of Wiley’s triumph over Jim Crow-era segregation by barnstorming the country competing against both black and white colleges, culminating with a climactic contest against reigning champions Harvard University. In reality, Wiley’s season concluded with a trip to the University of Southern California, the actual national champions, for a debate whose outcome has been lost in the dustbin of history.

Washington’s direction is unadorned, lagging far behind his usual fine work in front of the camera, here as debate coach, professor, and legendary poet Melvin B. Tolson. Forest Whitaker’s performance as Dr. James Farmer, Sr., the first black doctorate in Texas, hits just the right note in his complex relationship with his debate-team son (Denzel Whitaker - yes, that is his real name). As the obligatory Troubled Team Member, Nate Parker essentially plays the same character he filled in Pride, while Jurnee Smollett’s Samantha channels an overwrought elocution that, when she debates/speechifies, jarringly transforms her Texas drawl into a Maya Angelou retread.

For all its earnestness and import, the film scores low in two respects. First is the character of Parker’s Henry Lowe, who almost comically retreats to the seedy side of whatever town he happens to be whenever adversity – ranging from the sight of a lynched youngster to pre-debate jitters – comes knocking on his door. More significant is the lack of creativity the screenplay demonstrates by having Wiley conveniently assigned the “correct” side of every debate. It is not hard to sound inspired when you are arguing in favor of welfare, school integration, civil disobedience, and economic equality. If only The Great Debaters had shown as much courage as its real-life muses.

Neil Morris

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