Directed by: Denzel Washington
Premise: The true story of Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) a professor at Wiley College in the 1930s who formed a debate team that used rhetoric and the spoken word to challenge Jim Crow laws and eventually participate in the first interracial debate tournament.
What Works: The Great Debaters is a terrific example of a film that simultaneously adheres to genre conventions to deliver crowd-pleasing entertainment while finding room within those conventions to create a thoughtful story. Despite following the formula of a sports film, including training montages, team building, and a David and Goliath finale, the film reaches outside of the confines of the school and the debate round. Like the best sports films such as Rocky, Friday Night Lights, and Raging Bull, The Great Debaters gives the act of competition meaning and significance outside of the debate round. In this case, the film places the debaters and their work in the historical context of the Jim Crow south and the story links the student’s attempts to expand their minds with the oppression exerted on them by a racist system. As a result, the film puts much more at stake than just a trophy. Human dignity, equality, and even the student’s lives are put at risk by their actions. Like the plot, the characters of The Great Debaters are given room within traditional roles to grow and expand beyond stereotypes. As the debate coach, Denzel Washington gives the kind of strong performance audiences have come to expect from him. At first it risks being just a phoned in repeat of his work in Remember the Titans, but the script and Washington’s performance allow the character greater flaws and much more complexity. The students, played by Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, and Nate Parker, are also given a lot of room for growth. Denzel Whitaker in particular creates some terrific scenes as a much younger man who is placed in between two older students, comes to know and confront a racist world, and rotates between opposing paternal figures: his coach played by Washington and his father played by Forest Whitaker.
What Doesn’t: The story is rather formulaic, following the format of most sports films while sliding in a spoonful of Dead Poet’s Society. While the actors playing students all do a good job, Jurnee Smollett’s role seems disproportionately smaller than her male counterparts. Smollett does a nice job with the material, but compared to the material given to Parker and Whitaker, it’s a little disappointing to see such a simplified female role in an otherwise complex film.
DVD extras: The two disc collectors edition includes a commentary track, a documentary, deleted scenes, and music videos.
Bottom Line: The Great Debaters is a great tribute to the power of reason and oratorical skill. Despite a few shortcomings and a reliance on formula, the film does that formula very well and is able to inject gravity and substance into it, making the film a much better picture than the typical sports story.
Episode: #190 (May 18, 2008)