FILMOLOGY IN MOTION:
THE GREAT DEBATERS (OPENING CHRISTMAS DAY)
By Sergio Mims (wif a little extra journalism from VillagePeeps)
CAST: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker,
Denzel Whitaker (great name choice), Kimberly Elise, Gina Ravera
WRITTEN BY Robert Eisele, DIRECTED BY Denzel Washington
RATED PG-13 *** Already the recipient of 5 (count 'em - FIVE) Golden Globe Awards
The Great Debaters announces its brazen intentions to right a few wrongs straight from the outset. It audaciously wants to answer for all the negative images and degrading stereotypes of black people that have plagued films for last 100 years. It’s a bold, ambitious mission and though one black film (or 100 for that matter) can’t rise up to that challenge, Debaters works triple hard to do its best. The end result is an excellent, rock solid effort that should be on the top of everyone’s “must see” list.
Though we have seen many times over and know all too well the “inspirational” film genre about a group of people rising against the odds before facing the ultimate test and even can predict the final outcome, Debaters puts a spin on the usual proceedings with plot twists, surprising character developments and shifting relationship dynamics unexpected for the genre.
Washington admits to having a greater appreciation for directors. The film is produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, Todd Black, and Joe Roth. It is executively produced by David Crockett and The Weinstein Company, and is distributed by MGM. It was written by Robert Eiselle who was introduced to an article about the Wiley Team’s unheard of victory thanks to the help of debate coach Melvin Tolson.
Melvin B. Tolson (center) with the Original Wiley College debate team in 1935 after Harvard University U.S. Championship win. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wiley College
The film is based on the true story of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the heralded 1930’s debate team at Wiley College, an all black college still based in East Texas. The team led by their demanding coach and mentor Melvin Tolson (Washington) rises to the occasion beating all oppositions both white and black until they are invited to compete against Harvard University for the ultimate prize and national recognition.
Needless to say Tolson and his team, all played wonderfully by Smollet (Eve’s Bayou, Roll Bounce) and newcomers Parker and Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker) face battles of self doubt, setbacks, and tremendous expectations and, of course, the all American scourge of racism as a constant presence which occasionally rears its violent side as in an extremely brutal scene where Tolson and his team accidentally come upon a horrific lynch mob and their unfortunate victim.
Jurnee said it was more about the actual events.
Yet, one of best and most refreshing aspects of The Great Debaters, thanks to an intelligent screenplay by Robert Eisele and nuanced direction by Washington, is that, from the beginning, it treats knowledge, learning and intellectual pursuit as something completely normal and expected by black people and not as an alien concept whose value we find dubious. In the film both parents and teachers demand the best from their students and children and they in turn not only expect that from them, but they try as hard as possible to live up to those expectations. For that alone Debaters is a blessed relief for those who have suffered through enough Whose The Caddys and Soul Planes.
In his second outing as director (after the overrated Antwone Fischer) Denzel Washington has clearly grown more confident and assured behind the camera. He’s become more visually attuned and creative in Debaters with some remarkably striking sequences such as the wonderfully atmospheric opening of the film crosscutting a raucous, sweaty, down home, blues party with a shallow figure of a mysterious man running through the swamp in a desperate attempt to stop a horrible act from happening.
Whitaker's view and Washington's view are the same - Two of the Greatest Academy Award Winners Ever!
It should be no surprise that all the performances are uniformly excellent but then with Washington and Forest Whitaker together in a film it would be expected that everyone else has to be at the best. No slouching when you have to go up against these two.
Before you think I’ve gone soft, let me point out that Debaters does have a few minor problems including an unrequited love affair subplot that’s not really necessary and an awkward, unexplained appearance by Washington during an important moment of the film which, instead of being the dramatic wallop it was intended to be, will only have viewers wondering how he got there. The film also has several historical inaccuracies which no doubt the filmmakers knew they were making but intentionally put in the film to make a bigger dramatic impact.
In spite of these small faults The Great Debaters is far and away better than the standard “inspirational” film and actually becomes something more than that. A moving, emotional movie that delivers a genuine sense of joy and satisfaction at the end.
Film critic, lecturer and festival consultant Sergio Mims covers all things film from the city that works, Chicago. He is a regular contributor to ebonyjet.com