Friday, January 4, 2008

The Great Debaters: Words with power

The Great Debaters (2007) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.4.08

On top of his impressive skills as an actor and director, Denzel Washington has an unerring gift for spotting young talent.

Having shephereded his team through several early victories, Professor Melvin
B. Tolson (Denzel Washington, left) prepares for the next challenge by giving
study pointers to, from lft, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), Henry Lowe
(Nate Parker) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker).
He coaxed a haunting, painfully nuanced performance out of Derek Luke in 2002's Antwone Fisher, and now has done the same with young Denzel Whitaker in The Great Debaters, a stirring, fact-based saga that stretches the truth a bit, but nonetheless conveys a strong sense of time, place and destiny.

Washington also gives himself a plum role, which he delivers with his usual steel-gazed intensity. From his first appearance — striding into a classroom, standing on a table and intoning "I am the darker brother," from Langston Hughes' I, Too, Sing America — we scarcely can take our eyes off him. That we do is testament to the similarly powerful performances elicited from Whitaker and co-stars Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Forest Whitaker (no relation to this film's younger Whitaker).

The Great Debaters is an old-style Hollywood underdog saga, given additional juice both by its setting — small-town Texas in 1935, at the racially combustible midpoint of the Great Depression — and by the conviction Washington brings to the material. Watching a quartet of kids from Wiley College rise to become an undefeated debating squad in the Jim Crow South is stirring enough; understanding that they do so in an environment laced with lynchings and the undisguised hatred of sneering white crackers, makes this one powerfully nervous picture.

Indeed, an atmosphere of latent menace pervades every scene, settling on us like the stifling humidity that cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) captures so well.

Washington plays college professor Melvin B. Tolson, one of this film's two authentic characters; the other is young Denzel Whitaker's James Farmer Jr. In real life, Tolson fought on campus and off for racial equality and social justice; he eventually became a poet very much in the mold of Langston Hughes. James Farmer Jr. grew up to found the Congress of Race Equality in 1942, after which he remained a highly visible player in the civil rights movement.

The other members of the debate squad, notably Henry Lowe (Parker) and Samantha Booke (Smollett), are composite characters created from many other individuals ... which makes the "Henry and Samantha went on to greater glory" text crawl at film's end an insufferable fabrication. How is the average viewer to separate the authentic later accomplishments of Tolson and Farmer from those of "Lowe" and "Booke," when the text statements are presented with identical candor?

Movies really must stop lying to patrons like this. I expected better of Washington and screenwriters Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, particular since they dedicated this picture to the actual Tolson's passion, dedication and teachings.

On the other hand, such fictitious trappings certainly play into the film's notion that debates can be won by anecdotal evidence and passion, rather than merely by reciting dusty facts and word-perfect quotes. If catching the spirit of a great event is as meaningful as the intricacies of who said and did what at any given moment — and, in the case of this film, I'd argue that it is — then The Great Debaters succeeds brilliantly.

That the Wiley College debate squad rose from total obscurity, defeated all peers and won the right to challenge teams from white schools is an uncontested fact ... even if the eventual climactic confrontation shifts from USC — which actually happened, and would have played far better here in California — to the storied halls of Harvard.

But such ambitions aren't even in the thoughts of the several dozen students who assemble one evening in Tolson's home, to stand in a chalked square on the floor — the "hot spot" — and argue for or against various issues of the day, hoping to impress the professor enough to be selected for one of the debate squad's coveted four spots. These eventually go to Henry, Samantha, James and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams).

Parker plays Henry as a unpredictable wild card, a restless soul unable to outrun the demons of his racial identity, who treats school only as an occasional calling: a good place to read books. ("Like prison," he admits, early on, to Tolson.) Henry is the story's flawed and tortured character, and Parker wages a persuasive battle between self-destructive behavior and a growing recognition that he's in a position to make a difference.

Henry's also an unapologetic womanizer, and quite good at it; he immediately turns his megawatt charm on Samantha, who gravitates toward this "mature" fellow, although keenly aware that the 14-year-old James has a hopeless crush on her.

Smollett is the story's token woman of ambition, determined to be successful as the debate squad's first female member. (This is not to slight the story's other two strong female characters — Kimberly Elise and Gina Ravera, as James' mother and Tolson's wife, respectively — who clearly let us know, mostly through sidelong glances, that they're far more than humble housewives.) Although initially quiet, Smollett rises into her role and eventually becomes a passionate presence in this story: the one who most blatantly and courageously addresses the lunacy of segregation.

We never really get a bead on Hamilton; he's clearly a hard-working academic, and the squad's one carryover from the previous year, but Williams isn't given an opportunity to dimensionalize his character.

No, most of the story's quiet intensity belongs to young Whitaker, particularly in the scenes he shares with Forest Whitaker, who plays James' father. Their relationship dynamic is galvanic and many-layered: James Sr. at first seems the stereotypically authoritative parent, substituting gruffness for any semblance of honest affection.

At first, we're almost encouraged to dislike James Sr., just as his son views him in what appears to be a negative manner, apparently cowed during the dangerous aftermath of a confrontation with a nasty white pig farmer. But this film isn't that easy, or that two-dimensional. James Sr. chooses his battles carefully, and James Jr. eventually sees his father in an entirely different light — as do we — when the man has a vastly different encounter with the local sheriff (John Heard, appropriately unsavory).

Awareness comes slowly to James Jr., and we see it percolate from the depths of this intelligent boy's psyche. It's a rich, naturalistic and thoroughly convincing performance; if Washington's Tolson is this film's blazing passion, then young Whitaker is its heart.

Washington and Forest Whitaker share one very strong scene, which takes place during a celebratory party following one of Wiley College's early victories. The moment may be too strong: Watching these two amazing actors interact almost pulled me out of the story. Rather than seeing Tolson and Farmer Sr. discuss their respective responsibilities for young James' education — and safety — I couldn't stop marveling at the way Washington and Forest Whitaker sparred with each other.

Chalk it up to Washington's ferocious conviction as both actor and director. Despite its predictable narrative and familiar Hollywood clichés, The Great Debaters gets under our skin; we may have seen this sort of story dozens of times, but not in this setting, and certainly not with this much fervor.

At times deeply moving, then horrifying and frequently triumphant, The Great Debaters succeeds at what great movies do best: It shines a light on an amazing historical achievement, and makes us want to know more.


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