Written by Robert Eisele
Directed by Denzel Washington
Running Time: 2:04
for depiction of strong thematic material
including violence and disturbing images,
and for language and brief sexuality.
The Great Debaters was a decent film with strong performances, but lacked a central focus and jumped around too much to be really great.
In Texas in 1935, Wiley College put together a debate team lead by Melvin Tolson. Tolson was a respected professor, but he had Communist political leanings which scared a lot of people. And this being the South in the early part of the 20th century, racism was still rampant. Tolson was determined to put together a terrific debate team; one that could barnstorm the country, including white Universities and showcase the black talent. After finding a foursome to lead the charge, Tolson has to lead them not only to victory in debate, but to victory over the abject racism that surrounds them. Each of the kids has to grow up much faster than they should have and it is only through a strong moral compass, and friendship, that they can survive and go on to lead fruitful lives.
The Great Debaters is based on a true story. In one of the extras on the DVD you get the real history of what happened and it seems pretty close to what the movie portrayed. The problem I had with the film though is that while it's called The Great Debaters, debating isn't really the central theme of the film. It's the glue that holds the movie together from start to finish, but the debating itself only appears once or twice during the film. We see them debate initially, then we're treated to a long montage of other debates. We get to see their first debate against a white college, and then their final debate against Harvard. In between we get tossed back and forth between various story lines that, while interesting in their own right, didn't allow the movie to focus on any one of them.
There's a love triangle between three of the debaters: Henry Lowe, Samantha Booke and James Farmer Jr. Lowe was the bad boy of the group - highly talented but too tormented by his past to remain in the present for too long. Samantha was the girl who travelled a long distance specifically to learn how to debate. Farmer was the son of the local preacher who was only 14 while in college. Needless to say, his love for Samantha was unrequited while she fell for Lowe. But that entire love triangle served almost no purpose in the film. Yet, it took up large chunks of the story. I didn't feel like the triangle was needed to make certain points. We could have learned about each of the characters through simple conversation. It was given much more weight than it needed and so I kept thinking something was going to come of it, but it never did.
The same could be said of Melvin's political leanings. As we find out in the postscript of the film, what he did became very important in later years (trying to unionize farm workers - both black and white). But they kept hinting at it without showing why it was so important. It was another story line that could have been great, but it was shoved into the middle of everything else. Racism is obviously also a key element to the film and while that was handled with brutal honesty, and could have turned into the central theme of the film, it too was mixed in with everything else. I think the problem really is, the movie is called The Great Debaters and yet there was so much more to the film that it kind of leads you in one direction and you're not expecting everything else.
All that being said, I thought the film was well made and well acted. I enjoyed the characters and even though most had more to their stories, I got to know enough about them to really care. The horrors they went through on a daily basis were very hard to watch, but important to see. I know the real story had a lot of moving parts and the writer and director wanted to make sure we saw it all, but I feel as if they could have narrowed down the story to pick up two of the elements and really made a stronger film. This was one of the first movies where I found that the extras on the DVD enhanced the story. Had they focused on the debating and the racism angle for instance, and let the love triangle go, but allowed us to learn more about Tolson through the interviews, that would have been great. Because this movie was mostly about the kids.
The 2-Disc Special Collector's Edition comes with a ton of extras. For a dramatic movie like this, I don't think I've seen so many extras. I'll start with the second disc. It has a documentary on just about every aspect of the film. If you want to know about the music that's used (soundtrack or score) there are separates docs about them. If you're interested in the costumes, there's a doc for you. If you want to learn more about the finer aspects of debating, you're in luck. If you want to learn about the young actors chosen for the film, yup, there's a doc on that too and much much more. The first disc is the one that I really liked. Besides holding the actual movie, a couple of non-essential deleted scenes and a couple of music videos, it has an almost 25 minute documentary on the historical perspective of the film. The reason this is so great is because they interview the people the movie was based on. So you find out that the character of Samantha Booke was actually an amalgam of a couple of different women, but you can actually meet those women! We meet Melvin Tolson's son and people who took classes from him and James Farmer Sr. It's astounding how much information they still remember after all these years. They also pop up in various docs on disc two, but it's that first disc that really captured my imagination.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, I liked The Great Debaters, but I felt it lacked focus and had too many extraneous stories that took away from the heart of the film.
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