The Great Debaters
Starring Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Forest Whitaker
Directed by Denzel Washington
Here’s the premise of the latest biopic, The Great Debaters: A teacher takes a group of mismatched underdog schoolkids facing racial prejudice and helps them gain acceptance by competing against out-of-their-league rivals.
Sound familiar? It should. That in-a-nutshell précis could describe dozens of Hollywood films, including 2000’s Remember the Titans. In that movie, Denzel Washington played the sage and acerbic Coach Boone armed with an array of motivational bon mots. In Debaters, the dependable actor is back in much the same role, although the sport of choice this time is debating, not football.
This may seem like a sad reflection on the paucity of fresh roles for African-American actors, but Washington is also the director and co-producer of The Great Debaters. He is the decider. Freshness is up to him. Even so, while it may not be the most original movie at the multiplex, it’s a tale worth telling.
In the mid-1930s Wiley College, a tiny African-American college in Marshall, Texas, the debate team begins a winning streak so strong that it makes Harvard sit up and take notice. The four-person team is led by the headstrong Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), with Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) in reserve. Lowe rebels against coach Tolson’s my-way-or-the-highway methods. Booke loves Lowe but hates his drinking. The 14-year-old Farmer is jealous of his teammates’ budding romance.
In his own inscrutable way, Tolsen teaches his students about peaceful coexistence and social politics, using the powerful words of Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks et al. to prove the pen is mightier than the pig farmer. Despite various interpersonal ups and downs, the passionate pupils are so successful that they’re invited to compete against out-of-their-league Ivy League rivals.
On paper, this must have seemed like a great project. Drama thrives on conflict and argument, so what could be more dramatic than a debating team spending its entire time arguing?
Unfortunately, the film imitates other, better movies in its attempts to gain mainstream acceptance. When Tolsen refers to the roots of the word “denigrate” (derived from the Latin “denigrare” to “blacken”), he hearkens back to a similar, far more powerful word-bashing scene in Malcolm X. As an antagonistic Texas sheriff, John Heard summons the spirit of Rod Steiger from In the Heat of the Night, with a similar sweatiness and a squeaky Southern drawl.
Nevertheless, the leads are charismatic enough to make us care about them. The talky stuff is broken up by subplots involving Texas discrimination, union-breaking, and rural life, and there are enough visual moments to prevent the film from becoming an endless stream of righteous talk.
Even so, the aggrandized debates are a scriptwriter’s dream come true — they’re an excuse to put opinions about war, independent thought, and social politics into the mouths of babes.
Although the film shows how the times were a-changing in the ’30s, with the seeds sown for postwar civil disobedience, there’s a relevant 21st-century context too: anti-authoritarianism, whether violent or non-violent, is okay if you don’t agree with what The Man is doing.
As a director, Washington keeps the story moving with the minimum of pomp. There’s a pleasing sequence where James Farmer Jr. shoots amateur footage of country life — field workers, a boy getting his hair cut — that draws from the WPA photography of the era.
There are also some fun parallels made between debating and acting — the team has to stand on a “hot spot” and perform. The kids learn to project their voices and their contentions are carefully rehearsed.
The Great Debaters won’t astound, but it’s uplifting and enjoyable enough.