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Awesome: 19.23%
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3 reviews, 8 user ratings

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Great Debaters, The
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by Eugene Novikov

"Unlike its characters, it settles for less."
3 stars

Denzel Washington's first two directorial efforts make it apparent that he has no interest in doing behind the camera the sort of groundbreaking, fascinating work he does in front of it. Instead he seems to want to make perfectly harmless and well-intentioned films about racism and overcoming adversity; movies to make people smile and warm their hearts. With Antwone Fisher I felt he made a mindless hagiography rather than something honest. The Great Debaters is more successful; certainly it is very engaging and sincere. It's also gutless and not very interesting, but that's neither here nor there for Washington, who I suspect is quite content with this stolidly conventional tale of inspiration and triumph. And you know what? I'm kind of content with it too.

For all its flaws, The Great Debaters has an intensity that confirms how personal this story is for Washington, who also stars as the college debate coach whose all-black team went on to face the Harvard Crimson in 1935. His passion is infectious, and his considerable chops help: aside from the generic appeal of the underdog formula, there are some fantastic big movie moments here. The confrontation between James Farmer (Forest Whitaker), an educated and very proud pastor and family man, and a pair of white knuckleheads whose pig he accidentally hit with his car inexorably pulls the entire audience to the edge of their seats; the look Farmer gives his son James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, who is not a love child of Denzel and Forest, but is nonetheless terrific here) is one of those shots that is sure to make Whitaker's eventual career highlight reel. There's another unforgettable moment later, when James Jr. fights with Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only girl on the team; the latter storms off and makes a swift left turn down a hallway, only to back into the frame again to get out of the way of a police brigade come to arrest Washington's Coach Tolson. In a brilliant, genuinely startling bit of staging, we glimpse the men in some reflective glass cases in the hall before seeing them on the screen.

What's more, it turns out that Washington doesn't need moments like that -- intense, racially charged expressions of rage and pain -- for his film to work moment-to-moment. While the characters do occasionally bow to the necessities of the plot, they have personalities of their own: they joke, they get scared, upset, angry. Even the romance between Samantha and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a third member of the team, works in a comfortably familiar sort of way. For a filmmaker determined to tackle themes of social justice, Washington is impressively comfortable working on a smaller scale.

And yet when it comes to the debates, including the all-important one between our heroes' Wiley College and Harvard, Washington won't, or can't, take the story to the next level. The details are unconvincing and betray a lack of courage. For the most part, we are shown only snippets of the speeches, presumably for fear that we'd get bored -- but doesn't that cheapen what these students have accomplished? It seems misguided to have us marvel at their fortitude in the face of racism and cruelty but at the same time assume we're not interested in how they overcame the odds. In the portions of the debates we do see, Team Wiley invariably argues the liberal and inoffensive side of whatever happens to be the topic -- "negroes should be admitted to state universities," for example, or "civil disobedience is a moral weapon." But the point of debate is to be able to argue both sides of the issue, to put forth positions you may not agree with as persuasively as possible. Wouldn't actually showing that have been doubly interesting in this context?

The point, I guess, is that The Great Debaters is only interested in debate on the most abstract level -- as a framework for the inspiring underdog story Washington wants to tell. It could as easily have been anything else. Washington's enthusiasm for this stuff is palpable, but it would have been so much more powerful had he bothered to get the debate part right. That would have required extra effort, but also some guts: the film's indifference to the subject permits it to give everything an implausibly rosy glow. The way it resolves the most controversial aspect of this mostly true story -- the fact that Coach Tolson wrote the students' speeches for them -- rings particularly false, a last-minute have-your-cake-and-eat-it maneuver. (And can someone who has seen the film explain the downright bizarre suggestion that W.E.B. DuBois dressed up as a room service attendant to watch over Team Wiley in their toughest hour? That's the only explanation for "Wilson," right?)

The Great Debaters may become a huge hit, and that won't be surprising -- it goes down easy, has some great scenes, and knows how to tug on the heartstrings. But unlike its characters, it settles for less.

(Reprinted from Filmblather.com)

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16825&reviewer=419
originally posted: 12/25/07 02:47:33
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User Comments

1/12/09 Anonymous. good history, and a good and interesting story to know. 4 stars
1/01/09 noops.... one of the best movies of 2007 5 stars
4/24/08 Dennis Frierson Wish it stayed in movies longer - Great Story 5 stars
2/10/08 John Geddie excellent film - keeps your interest 5 stars
12/30/07 georgewilson excellent 5 stars
12/27/07 Francesca Actual debate in this film was an intelligene insulting joke! 2 stars
12/26/07 Tiffany Gant I think the way Washington depicted Caucasians in matched the movies focus and tone. 5 stars
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  DVD: 13-May-2008



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