The Great Debaters — A Great Film
December 26, 2007 7 Comments
EDIT: Because I keep getting hits for it, this site has information about how much the movie has grossed since its Christmas release in the U.S.
Christmas Day was a day full of firsts. Some firsts were wonderful; others I don’t want to repeat but understand if they do happen again. However, one of the wonderful firsts took place when I went to the movies on Christmas Day and saw Denzel Washington’s Harpo-sponsored flick, The Great Debaters.
I appreciated this film so much because even though it was portrayed as a film of firsts, Denzel tried to give the characters a slight three-dimensional grounding that brought the film alive more than if it was a simple docudrama of awwwwesome, awwwwesome black folk. He did not Mighty Ducks his way through fictionalizing the story of Wiley College Debate Team defeating one of the top white universities for debate in the 1930s (in the movie, they chose Harvard; in reality, they defeated the University of Southern California); he made some non-traditional choices for each character and threw some realistic signs of the history of that time for impact. And the movie was intellectually sound enough that it kept everyone interested — it was not to the point on indulgent overkill that could alienate folks. I felt like cracking open my DuBois reader at one point because one of the debate teams took a quote from him and turned it widely out of context. I had a say what, cracka?! moment in the theater. But I digress.
What do I mean by Mighty Ducks filmmaking? Well…take a look at this episode of the Boondocks and pay attention to what Tom expects from his coaching moments. Methinks you’ll get it. There was no grandstanding to Save a Negro, there were no overplayed super training moments (there were super training/working moments, but they weren’t overplayed), and you didn’t walk out thinking, “Well, gosh darn it, if they kids can win, the world must be better off than it was before!” Or at least, I didn’t. The historical context of the story couldn’t leave me there.
Samantha Booke, a fictionalized portrayal based mostly on Henrietta Bell Wells played by Jurnee Smollett, impressed me with how it chose to represent her as the only female member. I was surprised in some ways at how she seems to be dropped into the plot compared to her two male teammates. One teammate fights his way out of a dangerous knife fight at a juke joint, one teammate listens reverently to a sermon delivered by a preacher who we later learn is his father, and Samantha is…dropped off at a deserted bus station where she stands with her luggage near a bench labeled Whites Only. No one picks her up, and after a few seconds of staring into space, she picks up her luggage and begins walking.
I don’t recall hearing anything of her family or a lot of her background throughout the film, only that she came to Wiley College and she tried out for the debate team with the hopes of becoming a lawyer. Besides these facts, her interesting pseudo-romantic trysts with her two debate team members, and her impassioned Southern preacher style of delivery that sometimes invokes Martin Luther King’s strong tremors of conviction are her main guiding points. And Sister had costumes to die for. Her actions as an equal player in the debate team seemed overshadowed by her reactions to the events that took place around her and on her. It’s there where I feel as if her character development was cheated compared to what we learn about the other two male debate team members. Some of the richest moments of the film took place when the members of the debate team were in conflict for various reasons. Of course, conflict fuels drama; but at times you sat at the edge of your seat wondering when someone would get hit. A very good sign of great casting and acting where things are allowed to get reasonably passionate without many stumbling blocks. And of course, the most amusing points were when the conflicts were resolved.
Denzel Washington’s character…well. When someone directs a film in which he plays a critical role, he has to maintain a balance where he doesn’t steal his supporting cast’s shine and he keeps his performance powerful enough when it matters. Sometimes I felt as though his performance as a debate coach was slightly canned. His character maintained its two-dimensionality as Radically Revolutionary Educated Negro Professor. Adroit at verbal exchange and argument, involved in semi-understandable chicanery to build up the economic positions of poor farmers and sharecroppers in the deep South — who could ask for anything more in a Denzel Washington-coated shell? One key way he avoid the Mighty Ducks trap is he kept the debate coach’s involvement in their lives to a very happy minimum. Because of certain plot movements, he was much closer to the personal lives of both male characters than he was to the female character.
The realities of the early stages of the depression did not make themselves noticeably felt in the movie through the environmental conditions and settings; they emerged through the topics of debate.
(For example, on the board it reads, “Child labor should be regulated by the federal government.”)
I found that relatively convincing, considering the fact people would not expect many poor blacks to stand in a position to attend what would be a pretty elite black college at that time. Not expecting it doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but the historical framing gave it a little more power over the direction of the characters’ lives. However, the fictionalization leaves some moments inexplicable, like where our character who frequents juke joints and lives by the lake finds his money and his attractive clothing to attend this college. We can infer that the source may be an inheritance or savings left by his family, but it seems questionable.
The gross displays of racism were perpetuated by lower class white folks, and that was no accident. The upper class, educated white folks who debated Wiley were painted to show the team more respect even as they argued very condescending racial topics concerning blacks attending state universities. You were supposed to receive the air that the lower class white folks had no power but their race to intimidate upper class black folks, and they exploited as often as they could get away with it. Sometimes, thanks to the the quick thinking and intellect of our black characters, they couldn’t get away with it. In the hands of the white lower class they placed the violence and the dehumanization; in the hands of the white upper class hosting the debates, they placed smug condescension. Through the victories of the college, both were supposed to be short-lived obstacles, except for the fact that the poor whites were capable of unequaled brutality compared to the upper class whites. It seemed like a strange way to show the stratification of racism and its different manifestations, even though upper class whites could attend a lynching as eagerly as lower class whites. But the visceral and most insidious marks of “do you know who you are, boy” types of racism came from the lower class police force and the lower class farmers. Strange choice.
By this point, I know people are probably saying, “M, it’s a story!” But there’s one thing I’ve already noticed from when folks were walking out of the theater after watching the movie with me: they treated the portrayals of what they watched as the gospel truth. “We beat Harvard, y’all!” That passive acceptance of the film’s premises worries me at any time, even a well-executed film like this one. But how many more “overcoming the obstacles to win” movies do we need? The film industry is doing the job our educational system refuses to do — teach our good history. We need more positive images in media, but when do we get the right to be a little dysfunctional while we’re dramatic? And no, I don’t mean black versions of The Honeymooners or Are We There Yet? canned comedies where they put the characters in blackface and expect things to carry over the same.
I’ll just leave off with this. Were there gaps that I wish they filled? Yes. Were there characters I wish they’d better incorporated (or even expected them to incorporate with that Mighty Ducks framework guiding my brain)? Yes. Am I glad they didn’t satisfy my wishes? In many ways, I am. Very glad. I would see this film again only to make sure that they didn’t sneak something in that would make me take back my accolades. Oprah and Denzel did well with this one.