Judge Clark Douglas is a very skilled debater. If you don't think so, um, well, you can just shut up, so there!
When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope.
"The state is currently spending five times more for the education for a white child than it is spending to educate a colored child. That means better textbooks for that child than for that child. I say that's a shame, but my opponent says today is not the day for whites and coloreds to go to the same college. To share the same campus. To walk into the same classroom. Well, would you kindly tell me when that day is gonna come? Is it going to come tomorrow? Is it going to come next week? In a hundred years? Never? No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!"—Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett)
Facts of the Case
The Great Debaters tells the story of an African-American debate from Wiley College that went on an incredible run during the 1930s. The debate coach is Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington, Crimson Tide), a politically radical individual with a passion for teaching. His students are the young playboy Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the quiet Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), the fiery Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett), and the 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), whose conservative father (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) also plays a key role in this tale. The team has victory after victory, but only against other exclusively African-American schools. They soon set their sights on a bigger goal: Harvard. But to get there, they are not only going to have to polish up on their debate skills. They will also have to carefully navigate their way in and out of their own community. Texas during the 1930s was not an ideal place for African-Americans to live, and certain members of the town are intent on making sure it stays that way. The team might have what it takes to win a big debate against Harvard, but first they have to focus on the simple task of finding a way to get there.
The story seems familiar at first, and that sense of familiarity never really leaves. What is that? It smells like…*sniff sniff*…a sports movie, or maybe a Hallmark Channel drama, or maybe a little of both. But wait, there's something else…*sniff sniff*…it seems unusually classy this time. So it is. The Great Debaters goes down a path that far too many films and made-for-television movies have gone down before, but it does so with grace, intelligence, and complexity. This is a very solid example of what formulaic inspirational films ought to be. Just because we know where a story is going doesn't mean the journey there has to be dull; The Great Debaters provides a genuinely engaging rags-to-riches tale.
Perhaps part of that comes from the fact that we are getting a standard sports movie structure, but not the standard sports movie action. Yes, there are the usual training montages (or in this case, practice sessions) and the increasingly important games (or in this case, debates), but substituting verbal competition for physical competition provides an enormous boost. Here is a film in which our heroes are required to be strong and competitive mentally rather than physically. The scenes of debate are fascinating, well-written, and very well acted by the solid young cast.
The film also stands a cut above what you might expect due to the atypically complex characters. Washington is in the traditional role of the tough-but-noble coach; at first it seems similar to the part he played in Remember the Titans. Whitaker is playing the role of a very stern father that we have also seen quite a few times before. There's also the obligatory racist sheriff (John Heard), who spends all his time attempting to find new ways to damage the lives of African-Americans. These characters are all what they seem, but they are not reduced to that and nothing more. As the film progresses, surprising and interesting shades are added to each character.
The film also addresses the subject of racism in a very effective and moving manner, with several important scenes that really make an impact. One of these scenes involves Washington being placed in prison, and a conversation that follows between Whitaker and the sheriff. Another scene involves Washington and his students accidentally driving into the middle of a lynch mob that has just finished hanging and burning an African-American man. Yet another scene involves a secret meeting taking place in a barn at night, with a group of individuals nervously trying to negotiate their way toward progress. Racism is not merely a peripheral element that serves an additional obstacle for our protagonists, but is directly addressed in a potent way.
The film gets a reasonably solid transfer, though darker scenes could use a little more focus at times. Audio remains fairly low-key through most of the film, the music and sound design is subtle and tries not to draw attention to itself. Where this set shines is in the extras department. Disc two contains several featurettes that run about 90 minutes combined. These cover every aspect of creating the film quite well, from acting to music to set design. Everyone participates, including Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey. Disc one also contains a nice look at the real-life "great debaters," some deleted scenes, and music videos. Though a commentary from Washington would have been nice (some Websites have erroneously listed this among the special features), this is a very solid DVD package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The wonderful Roger Ebert is one of the film's biggest champions (he is quoted on the DVD packaging as calling this, "One of the best films of the year!"), and yet he provides one of the more insightful criticisms of the film in his review. He says: "The debates themselves have one peculiarity: The Wiley team somehow draws the "good" side of every question. Since debaters are supposed to defend whatever position they draw, it might have been intriguing to see them defend something they disbelieve, even despise." Ebert then goes on to excuse and forgive this, but I'm not sure that I can. It is blatant and shameful emotional manipulation, always having our heroes championing ideas like civil rights, freedom, and helping the poor, while their opponents offer up positions that only a true villain could defend. The idea of being a great debater is not only having the ability to make a persuasive case for what you truly believe, but having the ability to make a persuasive case for any belief. The film sentimentalizes the achievements of these individuals by turning the debates into good vs. evil moral battles.
Sure, a few strings are jerked a little hard, but this is a film well worth seeing. It stands two or three steps above the average inspirational film/racial drama. Consider the recently released Pride, a film about an African-American swim team that had to overcome racial and personal obstacles in order to achieve their goals. The Great Debaters is a film that gets everything right that Pride got wrong, and is generally the sort of movie that can be easily recommended to viewers of all ages. Bravo to Mr. Washington and everyone else for putting such obvious effort into a film that could have easily been made on autopilot.
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Scales of Justice
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