Merits of 'Great Debaters' debatable

Al Alexander

Our own great debaters, Windy and Bluster, tackle Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters.”

Windy: Why do I like this movie? One word: Oprah. Her seal of approval, not to mention the huge amount of money her production company sank into the project, tells you all you need to know concerning this true story about a Depression-era debate team from poor, all-black Wiley College bumping tongues with the privileged sons of finance and industry at Harvard.

Bluster: Windy, Windy, Windy … For one thing, “The Great Debaters” is not a true story. It’s a fictionalized account of a true story in which just about every fact has been fudged or fabricated, beginning with the film’s climax, the Harvard debate. It simply never happened. True, the upstart kids from East Texas did go up against white schools, often winning, which is impressive in itself. So why make stuff up?

Windy: Bluster, the producers cop to the “fictionalized” tag openly and state emphatically that any embellishments were simply for dramatic purposes. It is a movie, after all. And the reason they chose Harvard was because it was the standard-bearer of higher learning -- beat them, you can beat anybody.

Bluster: I think the film also shows signs of a tight budget. Denzel, in only his second turn as a director, cast the members of the debate team with newcomers like Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Jermaine Williams.

Windy: In your haste, you conveniently forgot to mention that Mr. Washington also stars as the debate team’s coach, Melvin P. Tolson, a man who fought racism by day, urging his students to reverse the white man conspiracy to weaken minds and strengthen bodies; and at night, joining in dangerous protests against the slave-like treatment of black sharecroppers. You also conspicuously omitted the name of Mr. Forest Whitaker, the reigning Oscar-winner, who is marvelous as the Boston University-educated father of Tolson’s most prized recruit, James Farmer Jr.; a 14-year-old at the time, but he would go on to become a man instrumental in the Freedom Riders.

Bluster: Yes, the boy. What’s the actor’s name … yes, Denzel Whitaker. Is that made up, or what?

Windy: It is his real name, and he has absolutely no connection with either actor. Plus, you must admit he’s very good, and pretty much carries the movie.

Bluster: Yes, I’ll definitely give you that, but he reminded me so much of a hybrid of Gary Coleman and that little kid on “Webster” that I found it hard to fully buy into his performance.

Windy: How typically juvenile of you. He left me in tears every time he was forced to confront racism, like when his PhD father suffered the humiliations of a couple of inbred farmers, or when he and the other debaters happened upon a lynching.

Bluster: No doubt, those scenes are powerful. And frankly, the movie could stand a few more of them. They were certainly more effective than all those, excuse the expression, boring debates. I also wasn’t thrilled with the contrived love triangle in which James and fellow debater, Henry (Parker), a carousing playboy, vie for the affections of the very sweet and lovely Samantha (Smollett), the lone female on the team.

Windy: I agree, the triangle was a little square, but the central themes of racial equality and the importance of education always take precedence.

Bluster: If you say so. I thought all that love story stuff watered down the impact. And did the film really need to be so formulaic and predictable? It seems to me such an important story would warrant something much more profound than a fancier version of “Glory Road.” Just substitute basketball for debate and voila.

Windy: But you must agree that at a time when Hollywood often portrays blacks as thugs, dolts and cross-dressing cops, “The Great Debaters” is like a breath of fresh air. It’s full of positive role models.

Bluster: True, but that’s all the more reason it should have been better than it is. Still, I can’t argue that it’s a mostly agreeable way to spend an afternoon, which is something I can’t say about a lot of films this year.