"THE GREAT DEBATERS" MOVIE REVIEW
by Sr. Helena Burns, fsp
On the heels of "Freedom Writers" comes "The Great Debaters," spotlighting one of the most basic forms of communication: speech. I couldn't wait to see this film for this very reason (what has happened to oratory in our hi-tech media culture?) It didn't hurt, either, that the mighty, easy-on-the-eyes Denzel Washington acts/directs. (This is his second directing stint: "Antwone Fisher" was his first.) The depth that Denzel's stage career adds to everything he does is abundantly evident in "Debaters."
I knew this was going to be a good movie, simply because of the electrifying use of the English language by African-American artists of whatever discipline. Langston Hughes is my favorite poet because in his very short, pulsating works he makes me instantly experience the Harlem Renaissance—something otherwise far removed from me. Rap artist, DMX, in his song, "Who We Be," virtually uses only pounding nouns to tell a complete story. Enough said.
The movie opens on a typical scene in 1935 Black Texas: a jukejoint where God, the blues, love and liquor freely intermingle. Intercut and voice-overed are the words of an affable, distinguished preacher (Forest Whitaker) urging education of the young as "the most important job in America," segueing into Mr. Tolson's (Denzel Washington) classroom at Wiley College (a "Negro" college). Mr. Tolson organizes a debate team which will include the talented but angry Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), pioneering female Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett—her debate-speeches are some of the most rousing), and the preacher's boy-genius son, James Farmer, Jr. (Forest Whitaker's son, Denzel Whitaker!)
A movie about debating could have been way boring, but it's not—ever. And there is no false pumping-up of events to keep our attention. Statistics, factoids, and historical references—the mainstay of debating—are brought to life, and we actually want more! "Debaters" is chockfull of teasers that will propel you to Wikipedia for further curiosity-quenching. Only after I left the theater did I realize how many historical nuggets were organically presented (either as part of the character's lives: FDR and the New Deal; communism; Southern tenant farmers' unions; lynchings; or as topics of debate: World War I, Gandhi, etc.). And the arguments—for both sides—are presented so lucidly that I find myself able to repeat them. Although many topics are presented in "Debaters," it's not just hot air blowing in every direction. Everything revolves around a central theme: the characters' handling of success and defeat, hope and despair. This was no ordinary debate team. They had a lot to prove. Mostly to themselves. One reason the meaty content doesn't feel crammed into "Debaters" is the way Mr. Tolson constantly but delightfully cuts off his students' speech and talks through them. He knows the mind can work more quickly than we normally challenge it to.
"Debaters" has more substance than any movie I've seen in a great while. Would that public discourse and presidential campaigns looked like this today!
The racial issues are still very much with us: think "The Jena 6" and the reappearance of the noose, and as evidenced by the spontaneous reactions and comments from the overwhelmingly African-American audience in my theater.
There's a wonderfully small scene at a houseparty where preacher and debate coach have met their match--each other—and the heated exchange is diplomatically broken up by their wives. Little human moments—in the midst of tumultuous social strife--is what makes "Debaters" "Great."
"The Great Debaters" has assembled a true dream team. The acting is superb, fresh, in-the-moment. The directing and editing is tight, and the creative use of pauses is spot-on. The dialogue is intricate, believable and never throwaway. The cinematography is fluid, agile, sophisticated and integral to the story, with some refreshing comedic and dramatic surprises. The soundtrack is lockstep with the action, often exuberant and never emotion-plying. Silence is (gratefully) well used. The humor is sharp and abundant, while never letting us forget that the debaters are engaged in a very real war for social justice. The suspense is gut-swirling. The humor flows deliciously from the personality quirks of the characters. Hideous women's fashions of the 1930's have been given a tasteful spin by costume designer, Sharen Davis. This would be a flawless film except for one tiny, forgivable scene where Mr. Tolson plops himself down in the classroom and simply blurts out a stream of information to carry the plot forward. Unforgivable is Denzel's ugly, frumpy haircut.
There are incredible audial touches (listen for them!): opera playing in the preacher's home, a dog's barking building the tension as we await the outcome of a car accident, an unseen "God bless you!" before a road trip.
The religious undercurrents ring as true as they are in present-day African-American culture: inspiration, strength and goal all in one. This is most evident in a mantra that Mr. Tolson makes his team chant: "Who is my judge? God is my judge…." No relegation of God and the social gospel to the private sector here.
"The Great Debaters" is not an "intelligent" film nor a tear-jerker. It is a showcase for the truth to attract and shimmer all on its own. See this movie, debate it, and don't miss the amazing epilogue.