January 21, 2008

No Debate for The Great Debaters

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The Great Debaters starts, like many films, in transition: a woman sitting on a bus, staring out at a deceivingly calm-looking country landscape. Although an overused device for a titles sequence, it’s very fitting given the back story for the film’s plot — a country in transition, on a journey from its racist Jim Crow history, taking the first few steps of a long hard journey towards equality.
The film, directed by Denzel Washington and written by Robert Eisele, chronicles the true story of the formation and triumph of the debate team at an all black college called Wiley College in Mashall, Texas during the 1930s. The team, comprised of four driven students, James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) — who quits the team — is coached by Melvin B. Tolson, played by Denzel himself. Tolson is an educated, outspoken communist who creates problems for himself and the team because of his leftist politics (at one point in the film, he is taken into prison for trying to form a union of sharecroppers, both white and black). Although his vision is to create a debate team so formidable that it could earn the attention and admiration of white colleges around the county, the journey — and the triumph — towards that goal belongs to the students.
Travel plays both a symbolic and tangible role in the film as the team travels between college to college as it debates. Cars, trains and even a row boat make an appearance — all serving as a very obvious but still effective motif of the long road away from slavery and towards equality. And as with every journey, there are many obstacles — often physical ones — that come along the team’s path. In the most chilling scene of the film — less because of its gore and more because of its historical accuracy — the team witnesses the lynching of a young black man. The team and the coach react with a sick, helpless fear, and Henry Lowe, the team captain and something of a Lothario, gets drunk, cheats on his girlfriend and has to give up his spot to the alternate, James Farmer Jr.
The team loses; its first lost in a series of triumphs, both against black and white colleges. When I saw this in the theatre (on Christmas Day, no less), there was a mother sitting next to me with a young child; as soon as the hanged man came onto screen, she covered her daughter’s eyes and ears, but I certainly doubt the shock and horror coming from the audience could have been drowned out.
However, despite this and other low points, the film never loses its upbeat, almost reverential tone. Although the directing was more simple than experimental and the plot was pretty predictable throughout, the script sang an almost poetic story of determination and triumph. Denzel Washington, was, of course, terrific in his role, but it was the supporting cast and their chemistry that took an already winning story into Academy Award material. Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker, who plays his father in the film) especially deserves some form of Oscar for his role as the real James Farmer Jr., a 14-year old prodigy who overcomes his youthful awkwardness, pudge and crush on Samantha Brooke to take the team to new heights.
Whether or not the film deserves the Oscar for best screenplay is debatable what with the predictable plotline and previously-mentioned overused themes (even the ending was a little too Mighty Ducks 3 for my taste). However, although usually such obtuse tactics would turn me off, I give The Great Debaters the ultimate slide in that area for its breakout acting, script and storyline.
The film is a completely honest portrayal of the harrowing journey the South took towards equality, and serves as a hopeful reminder that we too, are still moving, despite the roadblocks, towards total equality.
Can’t really get more Christmassy than that.