I love the Disney-esque stories of the underdog beating all odds to achieve something everyone said they couldn’t do. I like to feel good. Sure, we know they’ll come out on top before we even see the movie, but the heartwarming hope is still nice to watch. I don’t care for the ones that are overly sentimental and gag inducing, but when the movie is well done it just hits the spot. The Great Debaters is that sort of film.
Denzel Washington, as both the director and a star of the movie, manages the perfect balance between feel-good and real so The Great Debaters isn’t just syrupy sweetness. Yes, we know they just don’t make movies inspired by true stories that don’t somehow have a happy ending. Heck, this story was so touching as to make Oprah Winfrey want her Harpo Films company to produce it.
The Great Debaters is about the 1935 debate team from all-black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. There are four students on the team: the 14-year-old prodigy James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), handsome troublemaker Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the first female on the team Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). The film follows their journey from tryouts until the climatic face-off with Harvard University. Okay, so the movie takes some liberties as the team actually went up against the University of Southern California, but the idea is the same. Naturally there are some side-plots to help keep some tension in the story that might otherwise be too formulaic and safe. And since they live in the Jim Crow South, you can imagine some of the issues dealt with in the movie.
With seasoned greats like Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker (no relation to the young Denzel Whitaker), the acting starts off on a strong foot. Throw in the four talented young actors and The Great Debaters avoids one-note roles, for the most part. But the characters with little-to-no depth also have entertaining performances even if they do rely heavily on stereotypes.
The production design is also excellent and does a lot to capture the feel of 1930’s Texas. The sets, costumes, and props work together well, so well in fact they really are merely the background instead of a distraction as seems to be a common shortfall for contemporary movies. And while the film does play it safe a lot of the time, there are some moments where lines of comfort are crossed to show what life for these young students might have been like.
In fact, I think the only thing that didn’t work for The Great Debaters is some of the subplots that add little to nothing to the story – the romance for example. That and the Wiley team always debate for the side of the arguments they already agree with. It would have been interesting to see them debate against integration or something that would have proven to be difficult for the kids. The Great Debaters does follow the profitable and formulaic sports plot, simply substituting debating and arguments for sports and balls. But it does make for a movie the entire family can enjoy with some educational aspects thrown in the mix.
As a side-note, I can’t help but notice Denzel Whitaker’s name as being a hybrid of the two, more established actors in the film. Luckily for him, I don’t think it will be difficult for him, or any of the young actors really, to own up to the name.