The Great Debaters

January 28, 2012 10 Min Read

Review by: Daniel Pulliam

Plot: What’s it about?

The Great Debaters follows the story of Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a group of African-American students who try out for a debate team under the instruction of Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington). The story follows the team as they fight opposing schools, racism in 1930s Texas, and each other as they come of age together and find personal triumph in themselves against all odds and societal prejudice. Given that description, this is a film that is virtually critic-proof for all of its high-minded intentions. Washington also directs here, making his already (typically) strong performance all the more impressive for his simultaneous work behind the camera. He makes the most of the film which, to be fair, comes with its share of foregone conclusions and overt sentiment. This is the kind of movie that is tailor-made for the crowd it caters to. Think of The Great Debaters as a step and a half away from a Lifetime movie of the week, featuring talented actors, eye-catching cinematography, and far more competent direction. Having seen it, though, I cant say Im sure whether that is a plus for the film or not.

Theres nothing particularly wrong with this film, and Im not saying that it isnt well-made, because it is certainly well-constructed and paced. I can honestly say that I was interested in what the story had to say for nearly the entirety of the running time (though there is one narrative slump around the 45-minute mark that had me checking my watch once or twice). The film is made with dignity, a hearty helping of blatant reverence for its characters respective personal journeys, and with an admirable adherence to the true story that inspired it. The performances are, on the whole, very convincing and passionately delivered. It may border on melodrama from time to time, but for a film of this kind, thats not an entirely inappropriate approach. The music, while more sentimental and manipulative than perhaps intended, serves the story well and isnt as overbearing as music often tends to be in films like this. The care and craft that have gone into making this obviously personal film is absolutely palatable, and all signs point to this being a personal labor of love for all involved.

I must admit, however, that for all the accolades Ive just bestowed on this film, I found myself unable to truly connect with it. Im not sure of the reason for this, but I found the sentiment a bit too over-the-top for my personal taste, and I though that the contextual theme of racial prejudice would have worked to far greater effect had it been a subtle backdrop to the main story of the debate team instead of a rehash of all the stories of racism weve all seen in dozens of other films. Theres a point in the film where I felt it had turned a corner and became a film about racism and stopped caring about anything but making its message clear. Theres nothing wrong with that per se, but Id have liked to know more about the early stages of the debate teams preparations with Tolson and how they honed their skills with him. Theres virtually no explanation of how he trains them to debate the finest schools in the country. I feel that had the film been more focused on this aspect and less intent on highlighting the storys racial backdrop, I would have left the experience feeling far more inspired by the protagonists moral victory over the social injustice of the time. Instead, I came away feeling Id just seen a two-hour sermon on the most profound of axioms: racism is bad. Its nothing that hasnt been said and done a hundred times over, and even when the film so obviously attempts to shock us with tragedy, its nothing next to what weve seen in other films on the subject, so it feels strangely detached ineffective. Considering all of the things this film had going for it, it saddens me to say that to me it ultimately felt more preachy than inspirational. I still enjoyed the movie despite my problems with its structure, however. Just dont go in expecting a film thats primarily about its title.

Video: How does it look?

The Great Debaters comes to us on DVD with a serviceable but ultimately disappointing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Maybe its part of the downside of enjoying the high definition era, but I found the visual aspects of this transfer to be quite mediocre. Compression isnt particularly strong, and I noticed more than one instance of blocking, even when I wasnt looking for it. The overall image suffers from a prevalent softness. Whats more, theres a filtered look to the proceedings that only serves to mask fine detail further. Edge enhancement is also an issue in high-contrast scenes, with noticeable halos, even to the untrained eye. Overall, contrast is a bit hot as well. On the plus side, colors are particularly strong and vibrant, though whether this is simply a side-effect of the bump in contrast I couldnt say. Flesh tones are accurate and blacks are deep and pleasing. Taken as a whole, though, I was a bit let down by this presentation. The image doesnt appear as film-like as Ive become accustomed to, and fans of this film deserve better. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.

Audio: How does it sound?

As lacking as the video of The Great Debaters proved to be, the audio almost makes up for it. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track presented here is surprisingly atmospheric and enveloping, most especially for such a predominantly dialogue-driven film like this. In the few scenes that call for dramatic tension, my subwoofer actually got a decent workout, something I certainly wasnt expecting from this title. The all-important dialogue is crisp and clean without a single sign of peaking. All in all, this is an exceptionally well-executed audio presentation that is sure to please. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also available.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Disc one features a few negligible deleted scenes, a brief Historical Perspective featurette, two music videos, and the films theatrical trailer. Disc two contains the bulk of the extras. First up is a series of featurettes. The Great Debaters: A Heritage Of Music is an odd inclusion that examines the cultural musical influence on this decidedly non-musical film. Scoring The Great Debaters is a brief discussion of the films music with its composer. Theres also a featurette which focuses on Forest Whitakers portrayal of James Farmer, Sr., and a few others dedicated to Sharon Davis and the creation of a 1930s-era wardrobe, David J. Bombas production design, and Melvin Tolsons poetry. Most notable though, at least to me, is a surprisingly lengthy featurette on the debate camp sessions all of the actors has to go through in preparation for the film. This is a great little extra that I actually wound up enjoying a bit more than the film itself. All in all, its a solid supplemental package that should make fans of the film more than happy. I should also note that the set comes with an extremely well put-together insert (quite the rarity these days). For those sufficiently interested in this subject (or the subject of racism in general), I can easily recommend this as a purchase. For those just wanting to see a well-made film starring Denzel Washington, Id recommend a rental first.

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