The Great Debaters (review)

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Masters of Their Domain

Denzel Washington has done it before, so why wouldn’t he do it again? I refer to his impressive directorial debut, 2002’s Antwone Fisher, in which Washington took a script that couldn’t have been more clichéd — or more self-aggrandizing for its writer, whose glowingly laudatory script was about his own life — and turned it into, as I called it then, “a more-than-averagely pleasing, more-than-averagely touching” movie. He made you forget — almost — that there was barely a drop of originality to be found in the piece.
And that’s pretty much what we’ve got in The Great Debaters, Washington’s sophomore outing as director. It’s infinitely more polished than Fisher, which was plenty polished already: but this one practically shimmers with the kind of aura that surrounds the movies that take home little golden statues. And indeed, the film has received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture. This is not one of the best movies of the year, however. It’s a pretty good, a pleasing enough evening out, and it will be an excellent rental in a few months, but it’s too easy and too complacent, for all that it’s about fighting easy complacency. Scratch its handsome surface, and it feels like prepackaged Hollywood claptrap gussied up in a smart suit that it can’t quite wear comfortably. It’s like the smartest kid in the class being content to slide by with a B+ instead of putting in just a little bit of effort for an A.

Still, we’ve suffered through a long line, recently, of come-from-behind, triumph-of-the-underdog flicks — usually they’re about ragtag college sports teams who end up overcoming whatever adversity life has thrown at them. Why, at precisely this time last year, we were forced to endure the odious We Are Marshall, which turned inexpressible grief into a football cheer. Next to that and its ilk, The Great Debaters — that unfortunate title aside; it keeps making me think of Jerry Seinfeld and his friends struggling to become “masters of their domains” — is cinematic gold, clichés and all.

Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro’s script is based on a true story, though some substantial changes have been made. It is the predictable, and predictably Heartwarming(TM), tale of the debate team from a small black college in backwater Texas in the depths of the Great Depression who end up taking on, by the commencement of Act III, the snobby white boys of Cambridge, Mass’s Hahvahd itself. Actually, the Harvard folks are a fair bit nicer than the racist, right-wing pigs of their hometown. But this is one of those substantial changes: the real students who inspired this film did not face off against Harvard just at the moment when it would give the people their small town a boost of confidence and pride. And it’s probably a sure bet that those real students didn’t happen to luck into competition debate topics that so perfectly coincided with their own personal struggles — as people and as minorities in an era that was having trouble granting them their sovereignty. One of those shooting-for-an-A moments could have come when this team of smart, hardworking students was forced to defend a concept they found personally offensive. But that never happens.

It’s the performances that make The Great Debaters close to a must-see. Washington (American Gangster, Deja Vu), as the debaters’ coach, and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, American Gun), as another college prof with a rather different philosophy, square off in electrifying fashion… though the subplot involving Washington’s work with sharecroppers to unionize, and subsequent accusations from certain quarters that he must therefore be a communist, never quite gels. And it’s a bit extraordinary that it goes almost uncommented on that one member of the debate team is a 14-year-old prodigy (Denzel Whitaker [The Ant Bully, Training Day], no relation to Forest, though he does play Forest’s character’s son). It’s plausible enough that the 1930s Harvard boys don’t object to debating students from a black college, but it’s almost impossible to believe they didn’t at least have a snide remark about the little kid in their midst, no matter how clever he is.

What we’ll remember this movie for in 10 years: the breakthrough of Jurnee Smollett (Gridiron Gang, Roll Bounce) as the only female student on the team. The Harvard guys don’t object to her, either, which also seems unlikely. But perhaps they’re as won over by her as we are. Smollett steals the show with her passion and her charisma, and lends the film a sense of discovery and triumph that it wouldn’t have had without her.

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Tue, Jan 15, 2008 8:47am

so…this movie stars DENZEL Washington, Forest WHITAKER and…DENZEL WHITAKER!!!!!!!!!??????

LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL @ involuntarily hilarious casting choice (or was it involuntary?)

Tue, Jan 15, 2008 5:24pm

Is it really “hilarious”?

Wed, Jan 16, 2008 1:20am

Some readers lack subtlety.

P.S. I won’t ask you to get some sleep — after all, I was NOT one of your other readers yelling “hurry up and finish the reviews”; as a writer myself I understand the tension between creativity and deadline — if you promise not to try to bite my head off next time.

Wed, Jan 16, 2008 6:34am

“is it really hilarious?”

it is to me…did they do it on purpose or something?