The Great Debaters (2007) dir. Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker
Poor Denzel Washington. “The Great Debaters”, which can be perceived as a failure is actually a pretty good flick. It’s a light, funny and serious-when-it-wants-to-be drama about a group of depression-era black college students who take on American racism through their high school debating team.
This true story is set in 1935 rural Texas during the Great Depression. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a charismatic teacher who heads the debating team at the all-black Wiley College. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker – serious, that’s his name!) play three debaters who learn more than just debating from the inspirational Tolson.
Forest Whitaker plays Farmer’s father, a theology teacher who looks after his son’s activities with a stern hand. When it’s discovered Tolson is secretly a labour organizer that is uniting black and white farmers against their crop buyers Tolson’s reputation and credibility is questioned. Meanwhile the team is successful against all opponents and they get the rare opportunity to debate against big bad Harvard for the national championship.
Denzel casts himself as the lead role – the inspirational teacher – and Forest Whitaker as the disapproving and conservative father/preacher. It was the natural split of duties for the two actors – Denzel, the handsome movie-star with the plum role and Whitaker the quirky character-actor with the low-key role. Denzel performs with his usual mannerisms (ie his “Remember the Titan’s” character), and Whitaker looks typically uncool in his round-rimmed glasses. A more challenging choice for Denzel would have been to swap roles and play against type. Both are fine actors and would have tested their abilities and perhaps a more intriguing dynamic.
Though the film is out of the “Dead Poets Society” genre, the film doesn’t feel like a retread, like say, “Mona Lisa Smile” was. The three main adolescent characters are familiar, but distinct. James Jr. is the confident young genius, who’s constantly under the watch of his father. Though he’s cut from a familiar mould, there’s life to him. Henry Lowe represents the alphamale – handsome and talented. He could have been written as a n’er do well, who squanders his talent by indulging in other activities. This character is kept fresh. Samantha is probably the most underdeveloped. She’s ambitious – a woman trying to succeed in a racist man’s world. She’s beautiful and nervous, and never really represents the type-a qualities her character should have.
Denzel's direction is adequate, he relies on many Spielbergian techniques to draw emotion from the audience. As the film goes along the do-good earnestness is ramped up to annoying levels. What starts off as a natural organic film turns heavy-handed, preachy and on the nose. This is when the film feels like "An Oprah Winfrey" film, which during her major hype machine last year turned many people off the film. She means well, but that doesn't always translate to great cinema
Where the film scores is when the students are actually debating. I was reminded how dreadful that other debating film, “Rocket Science”, was. That film was about debaters too, but strangely didn’t have any actual ‘debating’. Denzel’s film lives up to its title and has lots of good debating. Grand speeches are made about racism, education, politics, and civil rights in a series of dynamic battles of words. The speeches are naturally written perfectly and may not represent what a real college debate may sound like, but it’s the heightened reality of the movies and made really fun to watch.
The film won’t make you ‘stand up and cheer’ as the DVD box tells you it will, but it’s a fine piece of familiar storytelling, full of good old fashioned Hollywood inspiration. Don’t let Ms. Winfrey turn you off. It’s pretty good. Enjoy.
"The Great Debaters" is now available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films