If you looked up “Oscar bait” in the dictionary, you’re likely to find the one sheet for The Great Debaters plastered right next to the definition. It’s got it all: the syrupy score, the uplifting climax and more crying than you can shake a stick at. Of course, what else would you expect from a combination of director/star Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and producer Oprah Winfrey? It’s completely by-the-book, heartwarming, inspirational filmmaking that does exactly what’s expected of it. The film follows the formula of the veritable glut of sports flicks that come out every few months to a T.
But wait. It just so happens, however, that this film does what these types of movies only occasionally accomplish, which is actually be engaging for a good chunk of the time it’s on screen. Not only does it have this little pro going for it, but aside from being a simple tear-jerker, the movie also has something on its mind. In some ways, the film’s a call-to-arms against intellectual laziness, in others ways, a political manifesto. But regardless of what it flirts with, in the end The Great Debaters still wants to be a message film, and remains too shackled by these self-imposed constraints.
Like all movies of this ilk, the film is based on a true story. In this case, it follows the debate team of the all-black Wiley College as they face racial discrimination in 1930s Texas, and overcome adversity to debate Harvard University at the film’s climax. How any of this turns out should be no surprise to anyone, and any plot twists should be figured out by the average moviegoer from simply watching the trailer. The movie digs itself an even deeper hole to begin with since debate isn’t exactly the most exciting activity to be committed to film. In fact, the film more than resembles one of this year’s other (and not to mention inferior) offerings in the pap department, the Terrence Howard vehicle Pride (if you missed it, don’t worry, no one else watched it either). Aside from sharing a cast member (Nate Parker) and having a climax with bizarrely similar plot points, Pride centered on swimming, which doesn’t exactly contain edge-of-your-seat thrills.
The Great Debaters suffers from this same lack of drama, yet it manages to set itself apart from the Prides and the Invincibles (2006) and the We Are Marshalls (2006) of the world by using its debates to some purpose. You see, using the Great Depression as a backdrop, The Great Debaters wears it politics (it’s lefty pinko politics, for those with an aversion to such things) on its sleeve, but instead of simply preaching its beliefs, the film is actually quite brilliant in the way it uses the film’s debates to give an argument for why the makers think and believe what they do.
As for the performances, Denzel is, well, Denzel, in a role he could play in his sleep, while Whitaker is, well, Whitaker. But while neither role is a stretch for either actor, they do lend an air of respectability to the movie. And while Washington’s direction is nothing more than workmanlike, he still shows enough intelligence to know when not to spell things out. The Great Debaters isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it at least fancies itself intelligent, which on its own is a welcome relief in such dire movie-going times. Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material, including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.