Friday, November 19, 2010

THE GREAT DEBATERS (2007): “Debate is a Blood Sport!”

Whatever liberties taken in the screenplay for the The Great Debaters, it’s difficult to deny that life in Texas during the Great Depression was less than ideal for most Black Americans.  This film would be a great educational primer that could provoke discussion in high school civic classes.  It even may inspire a frustrated student who is wondering whether all of the effort is a worthwhile pursuit.  But the utility of the movie does not turn it into a great work of art.  I’m not at all surprised that the movie was co-produced by Oprah Winfrey.  The lesson in the movie is as transparent as ones contained in after school specials that Oprah wholeheartedly endorses.
Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) is the new coach for the all black Wiley College debating team located in Marshall, Texas.  The finalists for the debating team include Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a brooding and passionate young man who is obviously frustrated by all that he has seen; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), a high spirited young woman, who is taken by the charms of Henry; and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a fourteen year old prodigy and son of the local preacher.  (Forest Whitaker plays James Farmer, Sr., but he is no relation in actual life to Denzel Whitaker.)  In Sea Biscuit fashion, the debating team defeats one team after the other.  At first, they debate only against black schools.  Eventually, however, their reputation spreads so widely that the team is invited to debate against all white educational institutions.  Eventually, the team is invited to debate against Harvard.
There are lots of obstacles in the team’s way.  Sheriff Dozier (John Heard) is a typical southern officer (at least typical for a Hollywood movie), which means that he is a redneck.  The Sheriff resents Melvin not only for being an educated black man; he is also concerned that Melvin’s political activities will cause unrest in the community.  Though Melvin never overtly states it, he is probably a member of the Communist Party.  (I’ll give the movie credit for this: usually, in popular films, the lead character is only mistaken as a Communist when in fact he just happens to be politically progressive.)  What’s worse, Melvin heads up a large labor union that held meetings deep in the woods late at night.  Sheriff Dozier was determined to break this union up and at one point even has Melvin arrested.  When the great debate with Harvard is to take place, Melvin is not allowed to leave the county and travel with the team, so he puts Henry in charge of the debate.
The debating team achieves its victory over Harvard where the topic debated is “Civil Disobedience” versus “Law and Order” to prevent Unrest.  The Wiley students conveniently are allowed to debate the side of “Civil Disobedience,” and the climax of the debate comes about when the young James stirs up the audience with his description of a black man burned and lynched.  Melvin does arrive at the tail end of the debate to witness his team being crowned champions.  The debate was also on the radio and many blacks from Marshall (including James Farmer, Sr.) are seen listening to the event with an expression of understandable pride.
There are many depictions of racism sprinkled throughout the movie.  The Sheriff and his posse breakup a union meeting and brutalize a number of the members.  The teacher and students witness a black man who has been lynched, and the lynch mob then pursues the teacher and students.  When the vehicle James Farmer, Sr. is driving strikes a hog that ran in front of the car, Farmer is humiliated by two white men and forced to pay an exorbitant sum to compensate the owners for the hog.  We see depictions of segregated facilities, and we see the debilitating effects of the Jim Crow’ laws on the black residents.  All of which makes the accomplishment of the debaters quite remarkable.  Whether so many in the community would really have rallied around Coach Tolson when he was wrongfully arrested is difficult to say.  (This was James Farmer, Sr.’s crowning moment when he was able to make up for the earlier humiliation at the hands of the hog owners.  The preacher talks Sheriff Dozier out of any longer holding Melvin in jail.)  In many communities, he would have been beaten and possibly killed.
Parker and Smollett provided the most intriguing performances in the movie as talented young people with a smoldering passion for many things that was often being thwarted.  Denzel Whitaker was too fresh faced and naïve to be taken seriously in his role.  Forest Whitaker was disappointing in that he did not show any of the acting talent that was on display in The Last King of Scotland.  There was no anger or any great conviction in any line he utters during the movie.  And Denzel Washington as lead (and also director) in this movie is always better when he plays a conflicted or even sinister character than in a role such as we have here.  A Soldier’s Story or even Hurricane were roles where he got to push the envelope while exploring what it meant to be a black man in the United States.
The movie does take place in Texas during the Jim Crow’ era.  Obviously, racism occurred, and just as obviously it would have to be addressed in a movie of this sort.  If one could not root for the teacher and students under circumstances such as this, we then show no sense of fair play or justice.  (That the obstacles were so great to begin with is our nation’s shame.)  I’m not going to say that we shouldn’t be impressed by the accomplishments of the debaters.  An educated black person that excels to the degree shown in this film under these circumstances is a supreme victory.
I am going to object that a movie can be so manipulative and at the same time expect an audience member not to perceive this.  Right down to the subjects of the debate, we get to hear the moderately (or cautiously) liberal message of the co-producers leanings.  How is it that not once the debaters are forced to argue a subject that would go contrary to their beliefs or interests?  Why is it the smarmy looking Harvard debaters are the ones to argue so stoutly for the establishment that was in place to keep the beautiful young black debaters down?  (By the way, the actual debating team from Wiley College traveled to the University of Southern California and not Harvard to debate the team that won the national title.)  The problem is that it is now 2008 and we still think it’s necessary to produce a film that shows that the Jim Crow’ era was wrong.  Whites and blacks alike should know this already.
About twenty years ago, I worked with a black man that had grown up in the south and who hoped to someday be a lawyer.  (Once, while walking across a law school campus in his shirt and tie, a woman apparently frightened by the sight of a black man on campus fled to the opposite side of the street as he approached.)  He once had a conversation with some college age students on the movie Mississippi Burning and one student had commented that he was shocked by the incidents portrayed in the movie.  My friend facetiously replied: “I was shocked, too.”  In truth, he felt a great disconnect between black people and those who admired that movie.  He also felt that the students were patronizing him and he wanted no more part of their discussions. 
Unfortunately, The Great Debaters is not a movie that is going to bridge the gap between blacks and whites.  I say that because in the crowded theatre in which I watched The Great Debaters, there were no black people present.  Instead, there were well-meaning white individuals moved by what was being shown.  I doubt it will touch any segment of the population of people where it will make a great difference – unless it is embraced by young people of high school and college age where the movie gives them pause for thought.  It’s not a bad movie.  In fact, it’s better than most.  It’s merely a one-sided movie that does not give us an entire glimpse of the life and thoughts of black people that would in anyway challenge most moviegoers’ assumptions.

January 15, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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