Saturday, May 17, 2008

DVD Review: The Great Debaters (2-Disc Special Collector's Edition)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker
Director: Denzel Washington
DVD Release Date: May 13, 2008
Running Time: 123 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

When you pair up two great actors in a film you expect great performances from them. This seems like a simple idea, but it doesn’t always play out the way it should. The Great Debaters is touted as having two former winners of the Academy Award for Best Actor going head to head with each other, yet curiously they only share two scenes together, by my count. Both scenes work well but aren’t a true indication of how the movie plays. The Great Debaters follows the true story of Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), a no-nonsense debate coach and sometime political activist who drove his team to national prominence in 1935 by challenging and defeating some of the best debate schools, white or black, in the nation.

The movie opens late at night, in a backwoods establishment. We see a young man drinking and being engaged in a fight by the husband of a woman he was trying to pick up. As the fight escalates, and just before they cross a line that cannot be uncrossed, a poorly dressed man, who was inexplicably running through the woods at that time, steps in and stops the fight. We pick up a few scenes later as that same young man, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), is in class and he and the poorly dressed man from the night before, Tolson, meet again under different circumstances. Movie convention tells us there is no way Henry Lowe is not making the team. After a rigorous, in-house audition, the four members of the debate team are selected. Lowe, of course, is joined by Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), the foundation of previous year's debate team; James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), an intellectual savant; and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only female debater any of them has ever encountered. Each of them brings something to the group, and as a team, they begin blowing out the competition leading to their eventual confrontation with reigning National Debate Champion - Harvard University. Along the way they encounter a rather formulaic look at life as an African American in the South in the 1930s. Or as much as I have been made aware of, having no frame of reference. The view offered of the reality of the racial climate during this time is moving and unapologetic, without being exploitive. The things they see and the situations they are forced into shape them as people and ultimately fuel their motivation throughout the movie.

The fact that this movie follows every sports movie convention in the book is irrelevant, just as the end result of the debates, including the final showdown with Harvard, is inconsequential. The story is not so much about what they accomplish as what it took to for them to accomplish it. Ask any fan of professional wrestling (the “sports entertainment” variety): a predetermined outcome does not make the match any less engaging to watch. What makes this movie work isn’t the rags-to-riches type story of the underdog who could; it is a story that demands compassion but doesn't beg for it. This is achieved through the keen direction of Denzel Washington, in his first directorial effort since Antoine Fisher (2002), and through the acting performances. Not only Washington himself, but Whitaker and all of the other members of the debate team. Their characters are mildly underdeveloped, a fact which is outweighed by the strength of their performances. In a movie where the characters are more the story than the story itself, my single complaint is only that I wanted more of them.

And there's the rub.

*** out of ****

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DVD Special Features on the 2-Disc Special Collectors Edition:
- Deleted Scenes
- The Great Debaters: A Historical Perspective
- “That’s What My Baby Likes,” Music Video
- “My Soul Is A Witness,” Music Video
- The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music
- Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub
- Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go To Debate Camp - A New Generation of Actors
- The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis
- The Production Design of David J. Bomba
- The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson

1 comment:

Jen said...

I'll have to put this on my list of movies to see. Thanks for the review.

This post would be great for the Movie Madness Carnival that I am hosting at my blog. Click the link for more details and leave me a comment to let me know if you will be participating: