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Resolved: Movies with "great" in their titles are being too obvious.
Resolved: Same with putting the triumphant music at the beginning of the story.
Resolved: If your movie is about the conquests of a debate team, you can't always give them the righteous side of the question to argue.
Is it a lack of sophistication or just a fear of opacity in the audience that makes movies like "The Great Debaters" beat the audience over the head with obvious points? I guess it's up for debate. What isn't is that Denzel Washington's directorial effort about a famed debate team at a black Texas college in the '30s could use a lot more focus on its characters and story and less attention on its emotional manipulations. Is it really that difficult to see that the sheriff and his minions are the forces of evil and that the debate team and its coach, striving to go undefeated while making the world a better place, are the good guys? Nope. But we get the title, score, speeches, tears, slow-motion victory leaps and epilogue to remind us.
Washington takes no chances, directing himself as Melvin B. Tolson, a demanding (and voluble, which serves Washington's acting style) debate team coach who turns his three-man and one-woman crew into an unstoppable force on the black university circuit, going mostly undefeated throughout the season. The team includes Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and a young James L. Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). (Farmer was a former professor at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, which for nearby Virginians is one of the really cool things about the movie.) There's also another debater on the team, but he's only there to take a fall that will show how much character the other three have.
Washington has done a fine job with these actors, but other elements in "Debaters" don't fare so well, including the clichéd and paint-by-numbers script (by Robert Eisele), which is compounded repeatedly by the cloying and mawkish sentiment that follows the debate team in its rise to stardom. The movie reveals its point of view most unseemly in the framing of its debates. They are always about rights, and Tolson's team always happens to end up arguing the affirmative.
In other mistakes, Washington is not alone. Many directors tend to overuse music to underpin emotion. We're still waiting for someone to realize that a rousing speech might in fact be more rousing without rousing music accompanying it. But Washington lacks all subtlety, preferring that every element of his film be told on the same full-blast setting as his own dialogue. Coach Tolson hasn't completed his first sentence at the debate tryouts before stirring violins swell under his sledgehammer directives.
Despite its shortcomings, "Debaters" isn't terrible. Washington handles a few scenes better than others. In one, Tolson and his team are headed down a dark country road to an important debate with Howard University when they come upon the eerie scene of a mob circled in savage silence around a lynching, the charred corpse swinging in a tree. Henry and young James, a man-child molded by his demanding father (Forest Whitaker), are involved in the similarly well-constructed aftermath. These scenes and a few others, along with the rich history in this story, earns a lot of faith the rest of the movie squanders. Tolson, we learn, was also heavily involved as a union organizer among local sharecroppers. Booke participated in the American civil rights movement. Farmer the younger became, of course, one of the most influential and well-known leaders in that struggle. Considered one of the "Big Three" of the civil rights movement, he co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality and coined the "Freedom Rides" acts of civil disobedience that led to the desegregation of interstate buses.
The history is interesting, but the movie provides it mostly as informational postscripts, awkwardly tacked on to the ending. We do witness part of Farmer's transformation from studious prodigy into equality-minded orator. His final debate at a famed contest with Harvard, at age 14, part of the movie's finale, is noble and stirring. If only it were less expected. It's no surprise that Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films produced "The Great Debaters." Competent but ordinary, it belongs on television, not at the movies. (PG-13) 123 min. SClick here for more Arts & Culture