Film Reviews

THE GREAT DEBATERS

By • Dec 27th, 2007 •

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Noble, brilliant suit-wearing Negros fight for equality in racist Texas circa 1935. All the white people are toothless, evil pig farmers. Denzel insults his white audience with caricatures.

I wasn’t going to review THE GREAT DEBATERS knowing full well the ugly emails I would get. If I don’t like a movie made by or about black people, I’m a racist; I didn’t like RENT, so I’m homophobic; and only the Lord and I know what happens when I don’t like the “underdog- team-makes-good” sports movie.

But no group out-ranks the LOTR army.

DISCLAIMER: I leave for my 7th trip to the continent of Africa next week. And, just so you know, I don’t do Africa behind a big white air-conditioned bus. I camp out with the people. I know more about African culture from first-hand, feet on the ground experience then all my black neighbors and friends put together.

While I hope to go to Central Africa (Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso) next year, I must pass up visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rebel factions are notorious for attacking Western tourists, and in 1999 a group of Western tourists was kidnapped and savagely hatcheted to death by rebels. Tourism to DRC is ill-advised.

This now said, let me also say that some of my critic colleagues encouraged me to write what they are afraid to write about THE GREAT DEBATERS, even though they agree with me.

You’d think that when a top star directs, he’s got all the right support staff behind him. He’s watched and learned from great directors, he knows all about pacing and structure. He should know how to direct actors. THE GREAT DEBATERS is poorly directed. All the acting is over-the-top. I’ve never seen a film with more sanctimonious, flaring nostriled, noble-faced actors. This is high school drama class directing. Everybody in THE GREAT DEBATERS is playing to the back row.

If you’ve forgotten the cruel fight for equality, director and star Denzel Washington wants to shove it right back in your face. Denzel’s huge fan base might have either not known or forgotten America’s ugly past, so here it is. There is even a lynching.

What is Denzel Washington so bitter about? Julia Roberts, in her Vanity Fair cover story, continues to lust after him. He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Why the grudge? Get some therapy!

It’s 1935 and Wiley College’s Professor Melvin B. Tolson is the coach of the debating team. He’s also a poet and secret union organizer. When does he teach? A classroom full of students want to join the debating team, so Professor Tolson must whittle down the top students to a four-member team. He chooses Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) and arrogant Henry Lowe (Nate Parker). The two alternates are fiery feminist Samantha (Jurnee Smollett) and 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker).

Tolson is a fire-and-brimstone coach. Young James is the son of a strict preacher (Forest Whitaker) and, even though he is a brilliant student, he is given no slack. James Farmer Jr. grew up and founded the Congress of Racial Equality.

Tolson, dressed as a sharecropper and organizing the poor folk, comes to the attention of the mean town sheriff (John Heard). James follows Tolson to a union meeting and sees a lynching.

This is Texas in 1935 from director Washington’s point of view: Barely dressed, cud-chewing white pig farmers, racist sheriffs and deputies, and snotty, elite Harvard.

Tolson keeps applying and finally gets an invitation from Harvard to debate! Because of his union-organizing activities, he is unable to go with his team to Boston. The Wiley Debating Team suddenly loses Hamilton when his father questions Tolson’s alleged communist sympathies. At Harvard, the man who serves the trio their meals and attends to them is a classically trained, highly educated, well-dressed Negro.

I had no idea that college debating was so boring. About that, you will agree with me.

How can one criticize THE GREAT DEBATERS without looking like a mean-spirited racist? I also know how popular attending debating teams are with the movie-going public, so let me suggest you see the movie first before emailing me.

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