Thursday, July 24, 2008

THE GREAT DEBATERS, or the many faces of a Forest.

Denzel Washington plays the coach of a rag-tag bunch of unproven young people who, despite fighting amongst themselves and dealing with the injustice and racism of the times in which they live, overcome all the obstacles to find victory and validation in eyes of their enemies. Branding is a funny thing.

I saw the trailers, I looked at the posters, I gazed into the steely eyes of Denzel, and I truly believed that this film was to be nothing more than REMEMBER THE TITANS 2, only this time the titular Titans would be debaters, not footballers. How wrong I was.

THE GREAT DEBATERS was directed by Denzel and produced by Oprah. The story is simple, a debate team from small, all-black, Wiley College in Texas, takes on the world, and ultimately, Harvard. But here's the rub: unlike TITANS, the sport is secondary. This movie is about the kids. Maybe it's because there are only 4 members of the debate team, unlike 50 on a football team, but the interpersonal relationships that exist here are deeper and more interesting than anything in the rest of the movie. Certainly they are archetypal and simple in places, but they are true in others. And the young actors, predominately Denzel Whitaker (yes, real name), are magnificent.

Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett, and Nate Parker upstage just about everybody in the movie. They seem honestly naive and sincerely unsophisticated. On the other hand, Denzel Washington's character is shallow and boring. Appropriately, his acting job is shallow and poor.

Fortunately, Forest Whitaker is in this movie.

Let me break from the movie for a second to sing the praises of Forest Whitaker. Of all the actors out there, he's among the most versatile and consistent in his emotional profundity. From BIRD to GHOST DOG, even this year's tepid VANTAGE POINT, Whitaker is a chameleon, never doing the same thing twice (unlike Mr. Washington, who is the same character in every movie).

There is a scene in DEBATERS where Forest and his family are driving in their car and he hits a hog belonging to a white man. Forest gets out of his car, apologizes for killing the pig and offers to pay for it. Meanwhile, his son is watching his eloquent, educated father sign his paycheck over to a man who is poor, ignorant, and disgusting. And knowing that his son is watching him genuflect to his intellectual inferior but social superior, the pain in the eyes of Forest's character is so acute to the viewer, that it's a difficult scene to watch. In fact, the best scenes in the movie are the interplays between Forest Whitaker and Denzel Whitaker, his character's son in the film (the two are not related in real life).

Lastly, let's have a word about civil rights era movies. I should be emotionally affected when I see a group of rednecks lynch a black man who has done nothing to deserve it (not that you could do something to deserve it, but you get my point). But, dang it, I've seen it so many times that I'm just not shocked any more. MISSISSIPPI BURNING shocked me. THE GREAT DEBATERS? Eh. Are we overly saturated by this stuff? Maybe we should take a break from these movies for ten years or so? I don't know.

Anyways, Is THE GREAT DEBATERS a great film? No. It is scattered, overly long, and not as emotionally compelling as it would have you believe. The side plot about Denzel Washington's character and his politics is unnecessary and probably should be on the cutting room floor. But the film is saved by two Whitakers - Forest and Denzel. They are worth the price of admission. Just fast forward through the rest.

Two and a half W.E.B. DuBois references out of 5


the hamster said...

my wife refuses to watch anything with forest whitaker in the cast. the first time she ever saw forest whitaker was in THE CRYING GAME (not great, by the way - but great forest whitakering there at the beginning). she says that the role scarred forest for her for life. i argue that forest whitaker had the best role and the best performance of the movie - not to mention, we never see him getting on with the she-male. she says, it was still a gross film and he was in it - thus he's gross.

personally, i love me some forest whitaker. i like him everytime i see him. he's beautiful. he's good. he puts half of hollywood to shame. and he's still underrated. all good qualities in an actor.

i also am a sucker for denzel. i'll name three good denzel roles for you:


consider this my disagreement, mr. barber: i like denzel washington. sure, he plays similar roles in the majority of his films, but so does samuel l. jackson, harvey keitel, steve buscemi, and sylvester stallone - and i love all these guys as well. they all make me a tad giddy. probably because they are faithful to what i expect of them.

my wife will still want to see this movie, which means i'll probably be seeing it. perhaps a review will come soon.

you've intrigued me to no end with the pig killing business.

Seth said...

I need to comment on this post because of the Forest reference. Yes, he is one of my favorites. No, his acting in vantage point was not good. The dialogue and cinematog in VP was so ultimately sh***y that Forest was unable to appear to be anything other than confused. I was unable to believe that he cared a lick about the little girl. He appeared lost in the movie. He appeared to be a frozen, one-dimensional version of the dynamic Forest I love.

I think you need to review that, made for tv movie. It definitely makes my top 10 worst movies of all time list. At one point (I think after the beginning of the 5th vantage point) I said aloud, in the theater, "It's groundhog day." Unfortunately, there was no Bill Murray to redeem it.

the hamster said...

seth - my wife saw VANTAGE POINT in the theatres and said it was awful. i said, wait, you mean it was awful, like, i would like it? and she said, no, it was awful, like, it should have never been made and should no longer exist. so i skipped it.

i would like to know your favorite forest whitaker role. i still liked him immensely in THE CRYING GAME. everyone should just watch the first ten or so minutes of that film, just the part with him in it, and then turn the film off. he's magic.

John Barber said...

The funny thing abut VANTAGE POINT (which I saw, but isn't worth rehashing in a review - I just don't have the stomach for it) is that every single person I know who has seen it has made the GROUNDHOG DAY connection. I wonder if the director thought "Boy, I love that GROUNDHOG DAY movie - how can I bring it to the action/adventure genre?"

I did think that Forest was pretty good in it. In fact, I thought he was the only good thing about it. My love for Matthew Fox is forever scarred by this dreck.

Kevin, I have some Denzel thoughts that I will post later. I too am a fan, believe it or not...

Seth said...

I have to say that I never saw Crying Game. Many have told me that I missed, arguably, his best role.

I must admit that I loved his role in Blown Away, but I think every actor's performance in that movie was bettered by the constant spinning of U2 cuts in the background. Don't judge me, that's just the way it is.

I get emotional when I think about his portrayal of Amin. And who couldn't love the overweight Samuri? Seriously...

Seth said...

And, for your enjoyment...

Esue said...

i have to throw in my two cents on Forest Whitaker. You have got to see this man is The Last King of Scotland to know what genius looks like for this guy - or for any actor for that matter. He is amazing in that film. As for The Great Debaters...I liked it. Didn't love it, but liked it well enough.