Wars of Words

A great, neglected story from black history is turned into a square film.
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Posted December 26, 2007 by Kristian Lin in Film

While watching The Great Debaters, I wound up focusing on the supporting actors.

Denzel Washington headlines the movie as well as directing it, but he gives a generous performance, ceding the spotlight to his co-stars as much as he can. So I wound up watching Forest Whitaker in the role of a stern, straitlaced, and forbidding father – an odd fit for him, but he does well with it. I watched Jurnee Smollett, who when she was 11 gave a magnificent performance in the lead role of Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 film Eve’s Bayou. She has acted irregularly since then, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see her at 21 having grown into a sharp and unique screen presence. I watched Denzel Whitaker, who’s no relation to Forest Whitaker, even though the latter plays his father in the movie. I saw this 17-year-old actor portray a 14-year-old precocious enough to be accepted into college. Even though he looks the part and displays some engagingly odd flashes of personality, he seems a bit too lumpen to play a whiz kid.

These performances weren’t so good that they demanded my attention, but in a movie as relentlessly conventional as this one, they were the best things to watch. Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the real-life early 20th-century English professor at Wiley College, a venerable African-American university located in the East Texas town of Marshall. In addition to being a poet and a secret labor activist, Tolson coached the school’s debate team, building it into an unstoppable force that first established supremacy over all other black colleges and then started to win debates against white colleges. In 1935, Tolson’s students took on the national champions at the University of Southern California and defeated them for a historic victory. The movie fiddles with this last bit of history and makes Harvard the vanquished team instead of USC.

As a director, Washington has a fairly solid sense of story structure, and though he fumbles the setup of the story, he keeps the film fluid once it gets going. In fact, it flows well enough that if you’re not watching closely, you might overlook all the little things he does wrong, like a sequence when he imitates the look of black-and-white home movies of the period; watch real documentary footage from back then, and you’ll see that human subjects reacted to the camera very differently from the way we do now. More seriously, there’s no charge to the scene in which Farmer Sr. accidentally kills a pig belonging to a racist white guy who humiliates him in response. Not a single dramatic development here comes as a surprise, and the lush overemotive score by James Newton Howard is all wrong.

This is Washington’s second film as a director, after his 2002 debut Antwone Fisher, which was a biography of a man with an extraordinary life story. He deserves credit for finding terrific stories in neglected corners of African-American history and bringing them to large audiences who wouldn’t otherwise know them. I just wish that he wouldn’t make them into movies that are so much like every other Hollywood inspirational film.

The Great Debaters
Starring Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, and Denzel Whitaker. Directed by Denzel Washington. Written by Robert Eisele. Rated PG-13


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