The Great Debaters (2007) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for strong thematic material, violence, disturbing images, brief sexuality, and language
Running time: 123 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forrest Whitaker, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, Devyn Tyler
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenplay: Robert Eisele (based on the article by Tony Scherman)
Review published December 31, 2007
Loosely based on a true story, as documented in the "American Legacy" article by Tony Scherman, The Great Debaters centers on poet Melvin B. Tolson (Washington, American Gangster), who spent several years as a teacher of speech and English at all-negro Wiley College in the mid-1930s. It would be during the 1935 year that Tolson would put together the first truly formidable debate teams, who would compete against other black colleges and their undefeated status drew the eyes of white colleges who also wanted a chance to debate them.
Although featuring some very fine performances, stellar cinematography, and a good sense of period, The Great Debaters doesn't inspire great debates so much as drum up potential for accolades in the form of potential Oscar consideration for many involved with its making. Directed by Denzel himself, as he did with his previous Antwone Fisher, Washington proves his own style to mimic that of Tolson himself -- he is able to elicit just the right performances from his actors while his content is manufactured to win people over much more so than to be a work of true art.
While chords are certainly struck regarding the difficulties of the black debate team in finding acceptance, or at the very least, tolerance from the white campuses and communities they must traverse through, too many liberties are taken with the original story in order to ultimately give us that feeling of emotional connection to these characters that would have tears welling up in our eyes for their final moment of triumph. Certainly, it is a nice story about overcoming adversity and never backing down from what one believes in, and yet, why does Washington spend so much time exploring the soap opera antics of the trio of debaters who develop romantic feelings toward one another? Perhaps it is meant as some sort of character development, but in the case of the film as a whole, these romantic dalliances are a distraction to more important issues that struggle to come to light. Their story might be compelling enough to think we're watching something extraordinary occurring if we didn't find these participants all so ordinary.
While there is enough good stuff that emerges to draw out a recommendation, The Great Debaters remains much more a collection of great moments that somehow never quite coalesces into becoming a great movie as a whole. Denzel's acting is as top notch as you'd expect, and the very good turns by the young cast offer up modest surprises, but the script by Robert Eisele (writer of such crap as Darkman II and The Birds II: Lands End) tries to give us emotional content to try to win us over when it should have been earnestly trying more to appeal to our intellect to understand just why all of what we're seeing is of great significance. The events of the film are much more important to the African-American community, and to America as a country trying to overcome its great racial divide, but somehow Washington manages to make the film much more about the significance of the individual characters first.
What kicks the film down from great to good, is even further crippled into just being passable fare by the fact that the speeches, while delivered with a sense of passion, at least from the Wiley side of things, are barely the stuff that would have any audience standing up to cheer. During the film's climax, which sees Wiley taking on the vaunted Harvard debate team (in real life, this never happened -- they did battle wits with USC however), the content of the arguments, while discussing weighty issues, barely passes for interesting public discourse. While listening to the Harvard team bluster through half-hearted notions that the law must be preserved at all costs, I felt as if I could have presented much better arguments myself, and I'm not anyone who has spent the better part of a year honing my skills to becoming the top debater in the nation, mind you.
The Great Debaters is like watching someone we all know and like participating in a debate, even if the skills of the debater is not up to the usual snuff. We know his heart is in the right place, and we want him to succeed, but in the end, we applaud merely because we know, like and agree with the message, even if we aren't exactly moved to tears or feel out minds enlightened through anything said. Despite some weighty issues discussed throughout, I remain the same person with the same attitudes walking out of the theater as I was when I walked in, which means that either the movie failed to win me over or I already agreed and understood everything the film had to say before I heard it being said. In either case, in a film about a contest that judges based on the substance of the argument over the style of the delivery, the fact that the delivery is all the film has going for it means it has enough oomph to get the crowd on its side but not enough logic to win over those who look any further than the surface affability.
©2007 Vince Leo