The Great Debaters: Speaking the truth
Historical drama struggles to rise above conventions
Like an Oprah show itself, I went into The Great Debaters expecting to laugh a little, cry a little and come out feeling a little bit better about the world. Without surprise or disappointment, that's exactly what I got.
Hollywood's newest creative power couple, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey, have given audiences a film that, thematically, doesn't offer anything new. Narrative expectations of convention (albeit uplifting convention) are in place upon awareness the story is that of a historically black college debate team from 1935 that takes on Harvard for a national title. The material is compelling by itself of course, but what is going to make this film special?
Although Denzel Washington directs and co-stars in The Great Debaters, one feels his presence without being overpowered by it. The three young stars of the film – Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker – are left to take control. As in the film itself, Denzel's role is to guide, but only up to a point, ultimately allowing his young followers to win us over in the audience (and the judges in the film) on their own. Their delivery of the emotionally wrought speeches, their genuine horror at a scene depicting a lynch mob, and the palpable chemistry they exude makes this underdog story more than the genre often allows.
Instead, it's a historical drama with very fine acting.
The film is not without its historical inaccuracies (Wiley College beat USC in the telltale debate, not Harvard), conventions (there is not a single white person depicted, outside of Harvard, who is not straight out of Deliverance and covered in slop), and disappearing subplots (Denzel Washington's character has alleged communist leanings, which are broached but never explored).
Yet altogether it is a film that raises certain uncomfortable questions that are not as "historical" as we may like to think. Early on, Washington's character, Melvin B. Tolson, says that for African-Americans to truly be free, they must reverse the effects of slavery – keeping the body strong but the mind weak – by focusing on education. Is that emphasis as widespread and as strongly felt today as Tolson might have hoped? Is it still a racial issue, or an economic one?
Recently nominated for a Golden Globe Best Picture, there seems to be something in this story that is catching people's attention. Ideally it will do so in a way that might incite thoughts toward even more progress and change.