Pro and Con
Denzel Washington's good intentions don't make up for his Hollywoodization of this remarkable story
The most memorable segment of the The Great Debaters doesn't have anything much to do with debating. James Farmer (Forest Whitaker), a black professor, travels with his family through what must be West Texas. Suddenly, their car hits a hog. Two white farmers walk out to the road, demanding $25 restitution. Whitaker obediently writes them a check for the inflated value of the pig. He leaves. The two Southern farmers don't do anything to Farmer, but the situation escalates to the point where it feels like something bad is about to happen.
That undercurrent of fear is what gives Debaters its best moments, and leaves it head and shoulders above 2002's Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington's debut behind the camera. Shifting between darkness and light, Washington deserves credit for exploring territory largely ignored by Hollywood: the 1930s Jim Crow South. Here the Harlem Renaissance and W.E.B. Du Bois barely register; it's a world where race relations are mired in Depression-era poverty. With his constant focuses on the thick swampy landscape (the film was shot in Louisiana), the tension is almost suffocating for everyone, white and black.
And then Washington drops the ball. The ominous, complex, and visceral undertow of the Depression-era South is what drives the story of The Great Debaters. The main body of his movie medevacs his characters to an aboveground, Hollywood-friendly (and Oprah-friendly) story of a debate team that follows the template of weepy come-from-behind sports stories.
The story is based on a legendary debate team at Wiley College, a historically black college in northeast Texas, which won the 1935 national championship by defeating the University of Southern California. The movie opens up in a marsh, as a young man, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), gets in a knife fight over another man's wife. At 20, Lowe enters Wiley College sulky, fiery, and somewhat embittered, a troubled soul in need of unlocking (similar to the title figure in Antwone Fisher). And so, Wiley College Professor Mel Tolson (Washington) recruits him for the debate team. The team itself also includes Farmer's 14-year-old son, James (Denzel Whitaker), and the young, attractive Samantha (Jurnee Smollett).
This trio, the heart of the team, is the odd, unconvincing love triangle in which James competes with Lowe for Samantha's affections. Professor Farmer follows the team as, under Tolson's leadership, it sweeps competitions in the South and, finally, heads for Harvard University, where it competes for the national championship. (The actual team won the championship at USC.)
Washington's central aim is straightforward: to use the debate format to integrate the team's narrative with the early phases of the struggle for civil rights. Coach Tolson is a declared communist who is organizing poor Southern sharecroppers, both black and white. As far as the movie is concerned, the team exclusively debates in favor of integration and passive resistance--and always against against white teams. That seems like a stretch, but it allows Washington to weave his story line into the larger picture.
And the actors are very good. Whitaker, unsurprisingly, shines in his supporting role as the respected, if somewhat hermetic, professor. His character is bowed but not unbeaten by the Jim Crow South; in a confrontation with his son, there are flashes of his Idi Amin. Denzel Whitaker doesn't do badly either, as a hapless teenage tub of lard who can't get laid and spends most of his time on the bench. Smollett is adequate in her cookie-cutter role as the love interest, while Parker adds an edgy, unstable quality to the movie. And Washington generously dispenses his charisma in an intense, but occasionally over-the-top performance as the team's leader.
For the moment, though, it looks like Washington's Hollywood instincts have prevented him from turning this story into a real eye-opener. The made-to-order underdog narrative is packed with sports-movie clichés--the fast-forwards of the debates, the swelling musical score, occasional black-and-white shots, and the nail-biting finale. There is interteam tension, a guru-coach, and, of course, a romance. There are many tears--in one memorable scene, the three teammates cry puddles together in their room at the Harvard Inn. As an actor, Washington has an austere magnetism; as a director, he likes to get in touch with his soft side. Whatever that costs the movie artistically, if the orchestrated emotional crescendo sparks a revival of intercollegiate debating, Washington could do much worse.