"The Great Debaters" earn a win

Dec. 25, 2007, midnight | By Kevin Teng | 16 years, 5 months ago

Racially-conscious film recounts an emotional past

Over the years, Hollywood has seen many attempts to detail racism's ugly past and showcase attempts to shelve it. Although "The Great Debaters" reuses many components of the cliché moral-based film, its emotional characterization and method of dealing with racism make the movie quite exceptional.

Based on a true story, "The Great Debaters" follows the emotional adventure of four college students at a black college as they overcome racial obstacles in order to establish themselves as formidable debaters. These college students are guided by an intellectual professor, Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), whose strong views on equality land him and the debaters in trouble in the Jim Crow South. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, the movie addresses such controversial issues using emotion rather than blank-faced objectivity.

The difference between "The Great Debaters" and other racial equality movies like "Glory Road" is the powerful human feeling that director and actor Denzel Washington generates. As the students and professor, each laden with character flaws, respond to their segregated environment, Washington effectively illustrates how these personal issues are conquered en route to success.

The setting and characterization were crafted to complement one another – each strengthening the other and the entire film in turn. Washington uses the characters to show difficulties in the time period by having them respond to brutal racism, and at the same time, shows how the environment itself causes the characters to react in certain ways. For example, the sheriff makes his decisions about who to arrest based more on mob rule than his own personal beliefs, showing the clear relationship between society and the individual. These two aspects of the movie are bolstered significantly by the superb acting.

Washington aces his role as a radical professor who is sought after by racist southerners because he raises a voice for change. Through his articulation and facial expression, Washington becomes a rebel as well as a motivational mentor, always skillful in the art of tough love – he speaks only the truth and cares little about excuses. His acting in this movie is comparable to his acting when he fills the role of Frank Lucas in the highly acclaimed "American Gangster," accurately depicting the two-sided life.

Characters Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a very smart student troubled with sex and alcohol, and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a studious researcher but inarticulate speaker, are fantastic because they show their determination conflicts with the limits placed on them by society. The actors really absorb their characters and help develop the bitterness of the Jim Crow era for the viewer. Also noteworthy is James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker), a conservative preacher and father of an inarticulate student. The preacher's pride and desire to guide his son in the right path shapes who he is as a person, something Whitacre is able to channel.

Quite the opposite in acting skill, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only female debater in the movie, seems too passive or aggressive but never assertive. Lacking confidence, Booke becomes stronger but never obtains the articulate voice that fellow student Farmer, Jr. acquires. Instead, Booke looks like a model of chauvinism through some of her promiscuous actions.

Oddly, writer Robert Eisele chooses to have the black debaters always take the side that is seen as morally correct in society today. Even though these specifically chosen issues (such as civil disobedience or black admittance to white colleges) help to make the point that the black students are fighting for more than just a win, it seems odd that the students always argue the side that promotes racial equality. Additionally, each argument was too heavy on emotion. While emotion is a powerful tool in convincing an audience, it is not the only one that should be practiced – the purpose of the logical appeals in the movie was only to give a basis for an emotion argument.

The strong emphasis on emotion throughout the movie may cause moodiness rather than excitement; while at some points the film is depressing, as a whole it is definitely heartwarming and suitable for the holiday season. Regardless, this is a movie of great significance in relation to America's past and efforts to overcome racial prejudices.

The Great Debaters is rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality. Now playing everywhere

Kevin Teng. There are some things in which people believe. Some people believe in other people. I believe in meatloaf. I believe that we all should have fun eating whatever meatloaf we want to eat. Sorry, that was "Harold and Kumar"-esque. Life is pretty good because I'm … More »

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