Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters is a strange title to ruminate over. The movie is wonderful in its edges – its depiction of the sharecropper unionization, racism, and the flavor of the racist south in the 1930s is one of the most evocative I can remember. On the other hand, its main thrust, the story of the rise of the Wiley College debate team and its victory over mighty Southern California (Harvard is used in the movie for dramatic purpose – and frankly I would have made the same decision the writers did) falls right into the pattern of cliched sports movies about Scrappy Underdogs Overcoming the Odds and Winning the Big Game with a spunky, unconventional coach who is a Leader of Men. That it is a sports movie does not make it bad – but it is such a cliche that you need to grade it in terms of its canned elements:
The Coach: Washington himself plays Melvin Tolson, their taskmaster who lets the kids Rise Up and Maximize Their Potential. Of course Melvin B. Tolson is a man of great importance in the history of African Americans in this country. He was an accomplished poet – he was named the poet laureate of Liberia – a mayor (Langston, Oklahoma), a chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance (in theses). He was a rabblerouser, trying to organize sharecroppers. However, the character is reduced in this movie to being the typical coach. Only the sharecropping aspects are touched in the movie – and that seemed more as a narrative device – to give our coach Establishment Forces to fight and make his team even more underdoggy.
The Cocky Kid – indeed one of the main kids on the team is one of those. If you confused his attitude with Boobie Miles, you wouldn’t be alone. Obviously he is much brighter – since debating is a more erudite discipline than football. He clashes with the coach – but if you don’t think he will emerge as a Team Leader, then you have not seen enough of these movies.
The Runt – one of the kids on the team is 14, and he has the Tough Parent (played here by Forrest Whitaker) who doesn’t want him debating or thinks the coach is too dangerous or that football is the debil or whatnot. Here the problems are thrown into much greater relief, especially in a chilling scene where Whitaker’s family is stopped after he inadvertently hits a pig. Of course the crotchety father proves himself to his son later – and indeed the Runt, well let’s not give it away.
The Surprise – Like Buttermaker’s daughter in The Bad News Bears, we have the Girl Playing with the Boys and certainly scenes with her showing she can also Be Tough. Fortunately, a love story does not break out here, though The Cocky Kid tries his darndest.
The Big Game – The debate with USC/Harvard. What can I say? They go up and get those cocky jerks. At the same time, the depiction of the debate and debate prep is lacking. We see the kids perform and win throughout the film, but the craft is not shown much – which may or may not be just as well since it must be difficult to show cinematically.
The sports movie elements are so latent that they cannot be ignored – and The Great Debaters delivers a solid one – but not overly compelling. The kids are presented as types and not particularly subtle. The drama in the match and the actual main thread of the movie, how Wiley develops a great team and rises up, is frankly not handled in a compelling manner. It is not the equal of Hoosiers for sure.
However, this mediocre sports movie provides a package to house some scenes of true power – when you see the forces of racism, union-busting and poverty that represents the Texas this story takes place in, there is a real sense of the everyday horror of being black in America at that time. Washington as a director does not skimp on that. When we see a lynchmob on the way to an important debate, it is truly chilling. There is an entire movie that could be made about that Texas, and about race relations – something important. But maybe that film was not fundable – and this film was. In a way this film is like Philadelphia, a film with an important topic at its core, but resident in a cinematic formula.