Denzel Scores Again in Remember the Titans 2: The Great Debaters
January 5, 2008
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!
In short, mostly. The movie sadly does not contain a “Douglas-Lincoln” scene, preferring to leave those debates as unstated backdrop. The Hegelian synthesis does occur, but the opposition between thesis-antithesis is not as stark as might have been expected. Perhaps several syntheses have already occurred? Thankfully, I did leave the movie feeling good, and adversity had in fact been overcome.
In his second stint as director, Denzel Washington proves to have a unique talent at working with young actors. His first film, Antwone Fisher, implied as much, but Debaters takes it a step further, requiring Washington to manage the impulses of four young leads. Denzel obviously excels as an actor, comfortably sliding back into the role of the good guy after a string of performances (most notably Training Day and American Gangster) that had him invert his screen persona. His next great task is the synthesis (damn that Hegel), playing a role with real moral ambiguities.
Overall, The Great Debaters succeeds. It doesn’t stake out any new ground, but it proves there’s still room to improve upon a twice-told tale. Despite the Golden Globe nomination the movie probably will not be nominated for Best Picture. Full-time academy award prognosticators awardsdaily don’t have it listed as a favorite, and it’s currently in a 3 way tie for 9th in my algorithm’s rankings (although, I would argue against at least 2 movies charting higher), and I’d personally rank it lower on a “best of” list. But it’s a good movie nonetheless, and though I won’t tell anyone to rush out and see it, I wouldn’t tell anyone not to.