Mark Reviews Movies

THE GREAT DEBATERS

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Denzel Washington

Cast: Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forest Whitaker, Gina Ravera, John Heard, Kimberly Elise

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 12/25/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Here's a movie about ideas that's a bit too timid to actually be about them. Instead, The Great Debaters has scenes of people talking about ideas within what boils down to a standard, formula sports movie. It has a fascinating, genuinely inspiring central theme about how the ideas and ideals of one generation can incite action in the next. Screenwriter Robert Eisele saves that thematic observation for the coda, though, so by the time we should be finishing up appreciating its impact on the characters and the larger social turmoil in which they're living and the sweep through which they will go on to live, we're just given the concept to understand it.

This is then, in essence, the first act of an important story, and so when the movie's conclusion feels anticlimactic and its development feels as though it's missing something, Eisele has basically missed the forest for the trees. There is a novelty factor in the fact that the "sport" the movie follows is debate, but The Great Debaters cares more about montages and the team's sideline activities than the process of forming and performing a debate. What keeps it from becoming a completely generic formula movie are scenes that show the disturbing social and racial realities of the 1930s South.

It is 1935 in Marshall, Texas, and we meet our cast of characters. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is at a party, chatting up a girl, about to get into a fight with her husband, and is rescued by Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington, who also directed) before the fight gets out of hand. Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) is on a bus on its way into town. James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is watching his father Dr. James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) give a speech to students, including himself, at Wiley College. The junior Farmer is only 14.

Tolson has arrived in Marshall to serve as a professor and the coach of Wiley's debate team. All three students are trying out. There are 360 students at Wiley, Tolson tells the hopefuls, and the team will only consist of four—two leads and two alternates. He teaches them about the basic structure of a debate, about irony and fallacies, and about how debate is combat. Henry, Samantha, and James Jr. become three of the four members, with Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) rounding out the team. They have a successful season, but Tolson has his eye on something bigger, something unprecedented: a debate with Harvard (It was USC in reality).

The early scenes of the forming of the team are intriguing.  Tolson's first meeting with the candidates for the team is the kind of intellectual give and take one expects to see in a movie about debating. Forcing the students to give quotes about a certain subject, demanding that they take a side on an issue without question, and dissecting their arguments on the spot, Tolson's persistence for excellence and the students' attempts and failures are thoughtful. It breaks down slightly once the team has been assembled, and Tolson begins his rigorous training, shown, of course, in montage form. For a movie that sets itself up with a sports formula, it's strange that we only see three debates over its course.

It's even more disheartening when we realize the point of the story has been the students' introduction to ideas, their ability to adapt and expand upon them, and the ways those ideas later influence their lives. The ideas are there, but they're simply not prevalent enough for the foundation of central theme to be laid down properly. The three scenes we do get—with the debates being about the issues of welfare, integration (at an all-white college, of course), and civil disobedience—are successful.

Instead, Eisele's script focuses more on the romantic triangle that develops between Henry and Samantha and James Jr. James has a crush on Samantha but can't bring himself to do anything about it, while Samantha is attracted to Henry, who is in the same age-range and seems to want another conquest to add to his list. Their romantic entanglement goes exactly where one would think it would from the start. When the movie isn't going through the predictable love triangle or substituting actual debates for talk and montages (seen in James' home movies) of the team's successful season, it serves as a distressing account of Communist paranoia and the racial tension in the Jim Crow South.

Tolson spends his night attempting to unionize tenant farmers, while the local sheriff (John Heard) tries to undermine his attempts with raids and beatings. The subplot is out of place in the larger context of the story, but then there are other scenes about the team's experience trying to survive in the South that are far from that. Dr. Farmer is scammed out of his paycheck to pay for a pig that he hits with his car and that is worth nowhere near that, and there's a harrowing scene in which the students and Tolson witness the aftermath of a lynching.

These scenes help to shape Eisele's ultimate point, but it's one that's muddled in formula and a lack of confidence in the guts of the material. The story of The Great Debaters is a genuinely inspiring one, but the part of it that's told here is indeed only part of it.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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