Debaters’ greatness debatable

True story too heavy-handed

The Great Debaters opens with a sermon-like speech by a professor of theology but it should have opened with a debate. Right from the start the film chooses to be preachy and reverential rather than using the power of argument. Set in Texas in the 1930s where memories of slavery were still fresh the young debaters have many obstacles to overcome (including a lynch mob).

Directed by Denzel Washington and produced by Harpo Productions (Oprah Winfrey) The Great Debaters casts Nate Parker Jumee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker as the debaters. Each of them has a powerful voice and acting chops to match despite being relative unknowns. Washington is their debate coach and takes on a Robin Williams-style mentoring persona straight out of The Dead Poets Society spouting quotes and cryptic statements that are supposedly full of great wisdom.

The film is based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson a professor at Wiley College. In 1935 he inspired students to form the school’s first debate team which later went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship. Washington portrays Tolson as both a mentor and an activist and this dual focus leads the film somewhat astray (Tolson worked to unionize sharecroppers in the South and was accused of being a communist).

As the students struggle to find their voices and causes in their oppressive environment the debates provide opportunities for these young actors to shine but they are too few and far between. The final debate is charged with emotion and passion on the moral right of civil disobedience in society. However the results are predictable and the message could have used a few surprises.

Many of the film’s scenes are difficult to watch as they portray the kind of open racism we’d like to forget was an accepted part of society at the time. A particularly cruel scene in which another professor played by Forrest Whittaker is humiliated in front of his family by two white men shows the level of fear so intrinsic at the time. To speak out could have meant his death. A film like The Great Debaters has a message to share about history education and prejudice — if only it weren’t so heavy-handed.