Review

The Great Debaters Review

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Dec 28, 2007 | 6:06am EST

Washington knows what it means to be an underdog during a time of turbulent race relations. In Remember the Titans his football coach won it all after he ignored warnings about the perils of playing black and white players on the same team. The Great Debaters also finds Washington facing institutional racism this time as Prof. Melvin Tolson the debate team coach at Wiley College in 1930s Texas. Tolson’s as unpredictable as he’s brilliant and for that very reason students come from far and wide to tryout for his debate team. One such aspiring great debater is Samantha (Jurnee Smollett) who becomes the first woman to argue her way onto the team. She naturally piques the interest of her fellow debaters with the hot-tempered Henry (Nate Parker) and the shy 14-year-old whiz kid James (Denzel Whitaker) vying for her affections. Under Tolson’s firm leadership though this love triangle doesn’t hurt the debate team from trouncing its competition. Nor does Tolson’s arrest for trying to unionize local sharecroppers of all color. At least not until Tolson’s hard work pays off and Wiley receives an invitation to square off against Harvard. Being that Debaters is based on a true story it’s not hard to determine whether Tolson et al. put their personal problems behind them. And while the result of the debate is never in doubt  Washington ensures that his team’s constant brushes with racism leads to a showdown that spits in the face of the “separate but equal” justification of segregation. As a director Denzel Washington doesn’t appear interested in making films that merely display his acting talents. Just as he did with his directorial debut Antwone Fisher Washington allows his young costars to dominate the proceedings whenever necessary. Accordingly Washington embraces the still-showy role of an authoritative mentor and caring father figure by tapping into his inner Robin Williams. There’s an element of Dead Poets Society to The Great Debaters especially in the occasionally unorthodox but zealous manner in which Tolson teaches his students. Parker Smollett and Whitaker--no relation to onscreen dad Forest Whitaker--all rise to the occasion by delivering their arguments with confidence conviction and persuasiveness. And you can feel their fear and outrage when there are exposed to a horrific act of racism that changes their lives forever. Parker especially summons up the kind of righteous indignation we have seen in the past from Washington. Whitaker lends James a wisdom that’s beyond his year but he does so without playing down the teen angst that so often clouds James’ mind. The radiant Smollett holds her against her peers but you wish she had more to do than inadvertently pit Parker against Whitaker. Perhaps that would have been the case had Washington explored what it meant to be an African-American woman during this troubled time. As James’ wise but stern minister father Forest Whitaker makes his powerful presence felt throughout The Great Debaters. Still you wish he and Washington would share more scenes together especially given their characters’ often contentious relationship. Remember Remember the Titans? Washington sure does. He knows the template of his crowd-pleasing sports drama launched a thousand fact-based imitators. So why not see whether it works with a competition that relies on brains not brawn? The result is more satisfying that such clichéd classroom exercises in motivation and self-esteem as Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers even if the film often seems predictable more often than not. The eloquent verbal sparring between Wiley and their opponents crackles with tension even when the propositions seem quite dry on paper. And unlike Disney’s family friendly Remember the Titans The Great Debaters is not afraid to tackle racism in a forceful and occasionally graphic manner. The Great Debaters is often uncomfortable to sit through most noticeably when Whitaker allows himself to be humiliated by white farmers in order to save his family  or when the team members must flee a lynch mob. These moments not only vividly portray the racial tension to be found in the Segregated South but reveal Washington to be a director who knows how to move you without attempting to manipulate your emotions. And all this paves the way for Washington to initiate a discussion on St. Augustine’s belief that “an unjust law is no law at all.” The Jim Crow era is over but as Washington points out with the climatic debate about civil disobedience many race-related issues that Americans faced 70 years ago remain unresolved today. So despite his film’s uplifting ending Washington knows that the race debate will rage on for years to come.

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