Racism is wrong. Southern sheriffs like to beat up illiterate farmers to get information. Fathers who are ministers expect a lot from their children. And oh yes, education can move mountains. All of these tidbits were new to me, and to most people, I’d imagine, but for their long-delayed release into the mainstream, we can thank Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, and the cast of hundreds responsible for The Great Debaters, the latest in a seemingly endless series of uplifting dramas to take a historical event, strip out nuance and subtlety, and return it to the screen with little remaining but applause lines and moments for thoughtful, mmm-hmm filled nodding. It’s the sort of film where the deck is so stacked in favor of moral righteousness that it’s considered controversial to come out in favor of blacks having souls.
As this is a film about an obscure little debate team from a two-bit African-American college in Texas, the table is also set for round after round of speechifying; the sort of soaring spectacles that evoke backwater pulpits and the best of civil rights rhetoric. The air is thick with nobility, tears stream down cheeks, fists pound tables, and it becomes difficult to ascertain a single spoken line that doesn’t include some teeth-bearing stand against throwing in the towel. It’s so overbearingly gallant, in fact, that it practically becomes an act of war to criticize it. But as I’ve always said, the surest way to get me to hate something is to tell me I have no right to do so. This is a film that feels entitled to a Nobel Prize and won’t stop marching until it gets it.
Needless to say, the squad is led by the increasingly one-note Denzel Washington, an actor once accustomed to taking risks, but who is now content to do little but polish the marble of his infallible exterior. He’s become the Sidney Poitier of our generation, though he’s still forced to share the honor with Morgan Freeman. Washington is Melvin B. Tolson, a poet and a professor at Wiley College, who just happens to organize tenant farmers in his spare time. This angle, even if true, is a curious side story, as it seems to exist solely to give hillbilly extras some much-needed supporting work. Tolson’s rabble-rousing angers the locals, which means there will be at least three scenes where torch-wielding crackers rant and rave about the march of Communism. Tolson is even arrested at one point, leading to the obligatory scene where half the town’s black population march on the sheriff’s office, demanding his release. Thank fuck “We Shall Overcome” had yet to hit the airwaves.
And an extra shiny bonus for all those who know that it is the minister (played by Forest Whittaker) who seals the deal with the redneck lawman. I have no idea why labor politics are injected into this darker-hued Dead Poets Society, but I suppose white America deserves to see itself for the foaming bigots they’ve usually been during most of our nation’s history. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder that if the current cinema were our only lens into the past, how many of us would believe that prior to, I don’t know, say, the arrival of Nintendo, whites did little with their time but wear overalls, ride around in pickup trucks, wave shotguns in the air, and toss around “Nigra” like a Frisbee? And what are the odds that every single black person from times gone by was a rock of ages like Virgil Tibbs?
And let’s consider the team itself, shall we? There’s the rebellious young man, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), who is hand-picked by Tolson because he’s the least likely candidate to be on a debate team. Only the movies, it seems, continue to believe that being ignored and underestimated are the surest signs of a hidden genius. Then we have the sassy female, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), who stands tall throughout, and though nervous, commands the lectern like Martin Luther King in his prime. Before we proceed, you should know that Samantha falls in love with Henry, and the two make love in his shack along the banks of the river, but she eventually walks out on the guy (and the team) because he gets drunk and kisses another woman. Oh, and then there’s the guy-who-is-brilliant-but-will-drop-out-early-because-he-gets-scared character, and it’s no surprise that he takes leave because Tolson’s union organizing starts putting everyone at risk, and he just wants to get an education and stay out of trouble. He’ll cheer the loudest in the end, though.
Finally, we have the precocious youngster James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker — yes, that is his real name), the prodigy who was born to stand up to his humorless father, as well as blow the big debate, only to rise to the occasion at the end. He also throws the standard hissy fit after finding out that Samantha loves Henry, even though he’d gone to the trouble of throwing on aftershave for their first interaction. He discovers the betrayal in the usual manner — he comes over unannounced to Henry’s house and sees the whore’s shoes on the floor, prompting his two-fisted rage. But let’s not be too hard on any one character. They are all equally guilty of riding out the inevitable course that has been set for them, one that leads to the hallowed halls of Harvard.
The film fails on many accounts — simplistic, predictable, half-baked, insulting to discriminating filmgoers — but it is during the actual debates that the film most glaringly goes off the rails. As expected, the film pays lip service to the liberating power of words, never believing that it has to prove such an assertion to have it accepted by a gullible audience. It’s enough to say, “Education is the ticket out,” while doing everything possible to undermine that idea during the competitions. We only get snippets, of course, but have the rules of debate always looked favorably on illogic, appeals to emotion, and anecdotal information? This is most evident in the final showdown with the Harvard elite, where James throws research out the window and defends his side with a story about witnessing a lynching. Sure, the images no doubt shook you to your core, but what have they to do with the topic at hand? Maybe all matters should be settled by whomever stomps his feet the loudest. Who needs facts when tears will do?
Oh, that’s right: this is Oprah territory, my friends, and how one feels makes all the difference. It’s like when Samantha thinks she won an argument about welfare because she says how hard it is to look into the eyes of a mother who is tending to a starving child. But since the team wins time after time — including at Harvard — it seems that the judges look not to the airtight presentation of a case, but rather its ability to send weepy womenfolk scrambling for their handkerchiefs. Each time we are allowed to hear a sustained argument, I couldn’t help but think that the opposition (always the “enemy” because they were saddled with the unpopular position) comes out on top, but again and again, I was put in my place.
And think of the debate topics, surely among the safest possible choices in the history of academia. The all-black squad gets to tackle such outrageous positions as integration in higher education, the power of civil disobedience, and the benefits of unemployment insurance during a depression. As debate teams are supposed to be able to argue both sides of the coin, might it have been better to ask the black teams to argue against integration? Of course not, because then we wouldn’t be able to wipe our eyes and applaud like dopey seals. Softballs seem to be the order of the day, and I half expected little James to rise like a soldier-at-arms, adjust his tie, and bellow, “Resolved: it is unjust to string up Negroes under the pale light of a Texas moon….We shall argue the affirmative.” As he scans the crowd, the film cuts to the peckerwoods from Harvard, who roll their eyes, fold up their notes, and consider the debate over.
One more scene deserves a mention. During a debate with an all-white college from Oklahoma (which had to be held off-campus, given the era’s segregation), Samantha begins her speech about the necessity of admitting blacks to state universities. Again, this is a formal debate, advertised well in advance, with the topic known to the community. No surprises, right? As soon as she starts, disgusted white folks spit, snicker, and bolt for the exits. Did they drive all this way just to walk out? Surely they understood that when an all-black college sent its representatives to the debate, they would not be advocating their own servitude? Such point-scoring serves only to make the movie audience feel better about how far we’ve come, even though most of these same people are too stupid and lazy to attend anything so uppity as a college debate in the first place.
And did the final event have to be the very one that would foreshadow the Civil Rights movement, complete with references to Gandhi and Thoreau? I guess it’s hard to get people out of their seats for tax policy in the Pacific Rim. As it was, the Harvard team did quite well with their unenviable position, and considering they had to argue against truth, love, and freedom, they held their own with dignity and tact. But they never had a chance, and when the team holds up the winner’s cup, we know why the Big O signed on as producer. It’s enough to have black victories, even if they are hollow, fixed, and based on lies. And Jesus Christ in a bowl of chitlins, is that really Mr. Tolson showing up during the final minutes, when he’d been instructed not to leave the state of Texas as a condition of his bail? You bet your ass it is. Stand up, America. Your father is passing.