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