After missing both Coach Carter and We Are Marshall (Does it say something about our society that in the past year we’ve moved from the “we” of Marshall to the “I” of Legend?), I was looking forward to seeing The Great Debaters. Most reviews of the movie have stressed the “sports movie” elements of The Great Debaters, and how predictable it is given the strict framework, while still admiring the work as a whole. Bob Mondello captured this tension perfectly in his NPR review: “But formulas become formulaic because they work, and in Hollywood terms, this one works … well enough.” I tend to agree with Mondello that formulaic movies can be rather enjoyable when done correctly. Then again, does it matter? As Tzvetan Todorov explained in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, all narrative is formulaic. Succinctly, “all narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.” (163) Of course!!!

Still, I came into the movie with a number of assumptions. The movie is set in a part of Texas that the Times describes as more aligned with the deep south than the Old West. Blacks are actively oppressed, even lynched. The struggle for equality is palpable. This theme is reflected in the movie’s title. “The Great Debaters” harkens back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, debates whose primarily focus was on the social conditions of Blacks. Of course, Douglas, though on the wrong side of history, won the debates. As Sufjan Stevens sang in “Decatur,” “Stephen A Douglas was the great debater/but Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator.” I fully expected the movie to contain a scene where Denzel Washington talks to his students about the legacy of those debates, singing the virtues of Douglas qua debater. “Debate is not about being right, or about morals” he would say, “Debating is about winning.”

I also expected the movie to be a Hegelian dialectic. Why? The movie stars Denzel Washington as the debate coach and Forrest Whitaker as another professor and father of one of the debaters, James Farmer, jr.–played by an actor named Denzel Whitaker! I predicted that the boy would be torn between these two influences (thesis and antithesis), before adopting the best qualities of both and becoming their synthesis. The name demands it!

Lastly, I expected to leave the theater feeling good, confident that adversity had once again been overcome.

Were my expectations met? Find out after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »