The Great Debaters [dir. Denzel Washington]
Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.
So why does Denzel Washington’s most recent turn both before and behind the camera, the crudely labeled The Great Debaters, seem so shallow? Why does a story that should soar plays as stodgy, grounded, and lacking in the basics of insight? It could be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.
Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on the Wiley College debate team. At 14, he’s the youngest student at the school, where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett). He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams.
Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be.
Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. The filmmakers argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact. Truthfully, it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.
Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university president - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.
Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.
In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.
Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.
And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.