The Great Debaters / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | December 25, 2007 | Comments ()
God Damnit. I had every intention of hating The Great Debaters. After a week of motherfucking holiday cheer, all I wanted to do was rip into a movie, bust a knuckle on its ass — if I couldn’t expunge a season’s worth of butter, flour, and oil (we do it Southern style here, bitches) in a couple of hours, the least I could do was rid my system of all the profanity and bitterness that I’ve had to hold back in front of grandma and born-again Aunt Bertha for the last … eternity, right? And what better target than a feel-good, inspirational, kick-in-the-back-of-your-throat, palm-to-the-bridge-of-your-nose slickly sentimental, overwrought, plucky-underdog film produced by the most powerful woman on the goddamn face of the Earth? Fuck Oprah. And fuck the dumbest name for a film since Sorority House Massacre 2: Nightie Nightmare. I mean, c’mon: The Great Debaters? There’s not an English speaking 14-year-old boy in the free world who doesn’t titter every time he hears that title. There’s a West Virginian, trailer-park asshole with plumber’s ass who smells like testicle sweat reaching beneath his two-sizes to small blue jeans right now yelling at his TV screen: “I’ll show you the Master of Bating right now, bro.”
But hell if that asshole Forest Whitaker didn’t weaken my defenses just enough so that Denzel Washington could squeeze into my buttressed, caked-on soul and free my heart from the clutches of seasonal cholesterol disorder™ and cheer fatigue. And now the only person I can hate in this equation is myself for allowing Oprah and her subliminal mind-control to win me over with a feel good story when all I want to do is feel miserable. Solipsistic bitch. How dare you rouse me from my anti-revelry with bromidic crowd pleaser. I loathe you for your ability to attach great dramatic talent to a stirring, though formulaic, film about subjugated African-Americans in the Jim Crow South overcoming insurmountable social and political obstacles to become the first-black debate team to take on the reigning debate champions, Harvard, and actually defeat them. Oh, sure: It’s movie we’ve seen scores of times now — Glory Road and Remember the Titans to name just two, but you knew that white and black folks alike fall for that David and Goliath, underdog bullshit every time, didn’t you? Yeah, you did: That’s why you exploited us, isn’t it Oprah? This isn’t about making a film with a talented ensemble of actors, an inspirational storyline, and a positive social message, is it? It’s about abusing us — taking our money in exchange for a moderately entertaining two hours and leaving us verklempt and slightly uplifted, isn’t it? You harlot. You business-savvy, wench. I hate you and everything you stand for — well, except for racial equality and all that philanthropy, but you know what I mean. Don’t you? Take your feel-good, bullshit movie and shove it up your ass, lady — I mean, after I’ve already seen it and derived all the pleasure I’m going to get out of it.
So, yeah: I’ll begrudgingly admit that The Great Debaters, despite its title, despite its formulism, and despite the foul presence of megalomaniacal evil lurking in the background, is a pretty decent film. Not that I’m happy about that because I really was looking forward to hating on it. But it’s hard to do when there is so much earnestness involved, when it’s so well-intentioned, and when Denzel Washington adds some gravitas, both from behind and in front of the camera, to an otherwise mediocre storyline and, in doing so, strips the formula from some of its clichés while enlivening some of the others. It’s as predictable as any sports movie, but it’s no less satisfying than some of the better ones. And it’s hard not to appreciate speechifying when it’s orchestrated by two of the best speechifyers in the business (Denzel and Forest Whitaker), along with a decent assemblage of up-and-coming talent, especially Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett, who are a … er … holiday treat to watch (oh, fuck you) .
Based on a true story (oh, aren’t they all now?), Melvin Tolson (Washington) is the debate coach (and future poet) at a small black college in Marshall, Texas. He recruits Henry Lowe (Parker), Samantha Booke (Smollett), and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker — no relation, but wow! what a fortunate name) to make up his team, which does what teams do in these first-black _____ movies do, namely quote from great African-American figures, overcome racial segregation, oppression, and the threat of lynching to win the big game/trophy. Here, the b-plot involves Tolson’s own involvement in unionizing the sharecroppers, which — along with a lynching the team witnesses (and which was witnessed, in real life by Farmer, Jr. — yeah, that James Farmer, Jr.) — makes up the setbacks one expects in the traditional formula.
It’s all predictable as hell, the tears flow a little too freely, the camera lingers a little too long, there isn’t a goddamn ounce of originality in the whole thing, and clearly the notion of subtlety is about as alien as Oprah appears underneath those three inches of plastic and cosmetics, but you know what? It works. It works because Denzel Washington has a magnetic screen presence; it works because it’s a fascinating story (dramatic liberties and all); and it works because it’s meaty, well-executed, and it never soft-pedals the racism with Disneyfied Motown hits or sympathetic white characters. But most of all, it works because it’s a good film. And fuck Oprah for forcing it on me during my weak mental state.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.