“The Great Debaters”

•December 20, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Scored tickets to the New York premiere… Red carpet, photo flashes, free booze, beautiful people, companion duly impressed. Must do that again.

Anyway, the movie itself? Great, really great, and I don’t like most uplifting type movies. For me to like a movie that doesn’t have a single explosion or bare breast is saying something. Now, that’s not to say that it’s a towering work of cinema. It’s formulaic, so much so that you know from the moment you sit down exactly how the story’s going to end. They take the typical liberties with the phrase “based on a true story”; for instance in the climax of the movie they debate Harvard, it was actually USC and the victory was unofficial and purely symbolic since blacks could not join recognized debate societies of the time. And while I wasn’t there, I’m fairly certain that no debate team member with a working brain cell would serve up the emotionally charged but logically naked premise that the “Anglo Saxon” debater does in the movie, which is promptly hoisted out of the park by the black kid, to stirring music and a standing ovation. And I never grooved on the young actor who played James L. Farmer, Jr.; but that may have been because while he did a competent job, his co-stars were outstanding.

 But when viewed not as a historical document, but as a piece of filmmaking then it fairs better. Let’s not dwell on historical accuracy, Denzel Washington directs the movie as an abstraction, a composite, a mirror image equivalent of the genteel era period dramas that white actors do to win awards.  When watched as a reminder of how far the country’s come, how the very idea of blacks being equal to whites was revolutionary a couple of generations ago, then it’s a great movie. Washington creates a number of effective scenes that create the atmosphere of a world within a world, the society that these middle class blacks had created, and the resentment engendered when it collided with the larger white world. Forest Whitaker has a scene where his character a black Phd, professor and speaker of seven languages, must genuflect and ultimately meekly submit to being robbed by a couple of pig farmers, while his family looks on. It is as fine a piece of acting/filmmaking you’ll ever see. Also I appreciated the glorification of the art of debate, “verbal combat” as it’s referred to in the movie; it’s long past overdue. In this age where volume of screeching and emotional content carry most arguments, people learning to reason and converse rationally and logically is refreshing. Adults will find it a bit simplistic, but it’s a must see for families (be warned, theres one gruesome scene, the N word is used several times, and there’s a brief, relatively mild sexy scene; but that’s why you don’t send the kids on their own). Highly recommended.