Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Great Debaters: Grade D

The Great Debaters (2007)
Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker. Writer-Director Robert Eisele

Stand And Deliver meets Dead Poet’s Society? Washington is a Debate coach at an all-Negro college in the south in 1935. Can his team of young, enthusiastic students, including the first female to ever make the team, win the regional championship? Of course they can, with Washington’s incessant harangues. Whitaker is the stern, conservative father of the youngest debater, and he wants to be sure his son is studying, not fooling around with that girl. The son, for his part, is ashamed of his father for having been humiliated by some white rednecks (who, actually, did nothing more than make him pay for a pig he accidentally killed with his car). Washington stupidly barks his lines without a trace of understanding or subtlety, preventing us from forming any sort of connection with him. Whitaker shows a much higher level of acting but his character is such a stereotype, we never really understand him. I have been a judge for high school debate competitions, and they are highly ritualized procedures that look and sound nothing like what this movie shows. Maybe it was different back then, but these melodramatic and “precious” speeches I’m quite sure would have won no contests even in 1935. Overall, the movie is trite, stereotyped, derivative, badly written and badly directed. Its main virtues are some acting by Whitaker and the fact that it displays intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working black people in the 1930’s.

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