It’s easy to dismiss a film like Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters. It certainly has as many missteps as it has grace and beauty. It may not be setting the critics on fire, but it has more meaning in 10 minutes of screen time than many of the critically acclaimed films this year have combined (excepting No Country for Old Men from that list). Yes, it’s sentimental, clichéd, predictable. On the other hand it gives something back to all of us at a time when the very idea of hope is audacious.
Yes, I’m invoking you, Barack Obama, because there is a connection here. The message rings true loudly and clearly off the screen in The Great Debaters: if not now, when. This is the reasoning Oprah Winfrey used in backing Obama and no doubt part of what drew her to help produce the Washington film.
When Oprah had director Denzel Washington on her show, she started with the simple phrase, “He is here.” “He” needed no further introduction. There is something about him that inspires awe, not unlike the upstart politician who keeps stealing crowds everywhere he goes. “He” is some kind of talent, some kind of man, and now, some kind of filmmaker. Where his debut film, Antwone Fisher, showed promise, Debaters has elevated Washington into the big leagues.
The Great Debaters tells the mostly true story of a young black debating coach, Melvin B. Tolson (played by the fabulous Mr. Washington), who coaches his team all the way to Harvard for a showdown of wit and philosophy. James Farmer, Jr., who was 14 in real life when he joined the debate team, is played by Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either actor), and his father is played by Forest Whitaker.
The story is really about what it meant to find the power of speech back in a time when the world was going to change in one way or another. It was the 1930s, during the Great Depression, in the deep south where lynchings were a commonly held practice that the law did nothing about. What we see here isn’t so much a film about the art of debating but a film about the seeds of civil rights, the minds that would drive the ideas that ultimately led to action. It would be decades before it all exploded.
There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and even though we know where it’s going, it is more than satisfying getting there. The sports movie formula is best when it isn’t messed with, and this film follows the formula up to and including the delicious payoff. We all love movies where the underdogs prevail; there have been so many of them and they all work just like switching on a light. This one, though, has the added benefit of being about something bigger than a team triumphing.
Coinciding with the release of the film is an effort to get hundreds of inner-city kids and under-served schools to begin their own debate programs. Oprah Winfrey credits her early experience with the debate team key in her own success. Debating is sadly missing from our culture, except during election season and even then the debaters are sloppy and give pre-programmed answers. There is nothing like learning how to formulate an argument to win a debate no matter what the topic is. Some of the speeches given by these actors will send chills up and down your spine. They will make you want to embarrass yourself by standing up in the theater and shrieking “YES!” Such is the power of glorious, manipulative entertainment.
Some have criticized the film for giving the debaters the easy route by giving them the “right” side of the question each time. And that may be true, but this film isn’t so much about the debates themselves, but about the debaters themselves, what they learned, who they became, how it changed things for generations to come.
I don’t want to live in a world where a movie like this is unsuccessful because it is too pat or easy. So what if it is. It’s what the world needs now.