The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington’s second foray into directing, recounts the historic run by Wiley College’s–an all black school in East Texas–Debate Team, which eventually defeated the University of Southern California (not Harvard, as the movie depicts it).
The unlikely and remarkable story is so improbable that any sympathetic portrayal would be in danger of moving forward only on schlockiness and cliches. Though he treats the debate as a sports event, for the most part Washington manages to avoid that danger. In the final scene, he deploys music sparingly, trusting his actors to deliver lines in compelling enough fashion to heighten the suspense and gravitas. And for the most part, the actors deliver.
There is much to appreciate in Washington’s movie. Washington’s portrayal of the racism of the deep south is as disturbing as his depiction of his subjects–the debate team–is inspiring. Yet it is also interesting to note that the winning position in the various debates is always sympathetic to what might be described as the more “liberal” position. The fact that the arguments occur in the context of race makes it additionally difficult for the audience to disagree with the big-government presumptions which undergird the arguments.
Despite that unfortunate asoect*, The Great Debaters is a very well-made film that is both entertaining and stimulating. I had some questions going in about how well the debate format would transfer to film, but Washington handles the oratory well. The arguments presented in the debates are hardly perfect, but yet contain enough substance to raise excellent questions about race relations and the process of integration in America.
The Great Debaters is by no means a great film. But it is a worthy choice for families without young children this holiday season.
*To be clear, I don’t know whether Washington researched the debates to the extent that the positions presented are themselves historical. I am open to that, but presuming here that they are fictionalized according to Washington’s direction.