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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007 05:59 am

No debate about the message

Denzel Washington scores points in his latest drama

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The Great Debaters Running time 2:03 Rated PG-13
Films like Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters are tricky to bring to the screen; in tackling serious subjects, they run the risk of collapsing under the weight of grand intentions. Although a degree of gravity is warranted in this film, the manner in which some characters’ actions are presented is overly melodramatic and reverential, which is sure to irritate some moviegoers. Fortunately, the acting is grounded and humanistic, saving the film from its own sense of self-importance. This based-on-a-true-story saga focuses on the first African-American college debate team, which was put together by Melvin Tolson (Washington) in the 1930s at tiny Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. With a total enrollment of 360 students, this institution is hardly what you’d call a powerhouse in any arena of competition, but from a field of 45 would-be debaters Tolson chooses four standouts to be on his team, which will go on to make history. They are Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a well-read rebel who doesn’t know how to channel his anger; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), an opinionated young woman who’s not about to let others’ sexist beliefs stand in her way; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), the team’s sole veteran; and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who, at 14, is chomping at the bit to prove himself. Tolson puts the four through their paces, and they soon find themselves defeating teams from much larger schools, delivering the arguments their coach has prepared for them with an intensity that speaks of their desire to prove themselves and succeed. A love affair develops between Lowe and Booke, much to Farmer’s dismay, and the team must overcome a variety of other obstacles, including violent incidents fueled by racism, and bouts of self-doubt, which result in moments of deep soul-searching. Although the big moments are at times a bit anti-climatic, it’s the intimate scenes where the film’s heart really beats. The moment in which Tolson quietly reads the invitation for his team to compete at Harvard, as well as a scene in which Farmer rushes home to find comfort in the arms of his demanding father (Forest Whitaker) after a humiliating defeat, are handled with a sense of deftness and sincerity that will bring tears to viewer’s eyes. The film achieves great emotional power in these sequences, suggesting that Washington is far better at directing intimate moments such as these, as he did repeatedly in the far superior Antwone Fisher, than he is at handling a multifaceted narrative or scenes of grand, rousing emotion. There are far too many subplots in this film: In addition to the love affair that develops, Tolson is trying to unionize local sharecroppers and turmoil is brewing between the older and younger Farmers. Although I’m sure that Washington and his screenwriter, Robert Eisele, felt compelled to be true to all of the events the movie was based on, it would have been more focused and the pace much improved had one of these subplots been discarded. Still it’s hard to be too critical of a movie that espouses the virtues of education. The message here is one of self-reliance, and Washington sees learning as not so much a steppingstone to financial success but the path to self-actualization through which a social conscience emerges that compels people to act for the greater good of their community. The Great Debaters delivers a powerful and timely argument.
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