Friday, February 6, 2009

The Great Debaters

If you read my last post, you've probably surmised that for me, the acting is what makes or breaks a film. And lately, between my hesitance to shell out $12 at the theater and the dismal selection of alternatives on television*, it really feels like it's been too long since I was treated to an authentic, hard-hitting performance (and no, Christian Bale's hissy fit doesn't count).

Fortunately, my Netflix queue seemed to pick up on my thirst for true talent, and I was delighted that this week's red envelope supplied an abundance of it in the form of The Great Debaters. When you've got Oprah as one of your producers, you know that the film is probably going to come with some sort of social or moral lesson. And when that message is being relayed by powerhouses like Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington--who also took on the director's role here--there's no way it won't come across loud and clear. Based on a true story, the movie follows the journey of a motley group of students, the debate team from all-black Wiley College in 1930s East Texas who, under the mentorship of Professor Melvin Tolson, battle racial discrimination and sexism to cap off an undefeated season with a national championship.

All right, so the premise does bear a striking resemblance to the formulaic plotlines of sports movies past where the underdog triumphs in the end-- except that in this case the footballs are swapped for encyclopedias and locker room speeches are replaced with eloquent soliloquies featuring poetry by Langston Hughes. But here, the sheer fervour with which it is conveyed makes it possible to forgive, even celebrate, the predictable message. Taking on the role of poet and professor by day, sharecropping union organizer by night, Denzel Washington just is Melvin Tolson, achieving a perfect balance of intellectual poise, paternal discipline, and inspirational persistence in the respective layers of his role. The minister father of one of the debaters, Forest Whitaker is pretty much perfect as James Farmer Sr. His contentious relationships with both his son and Tolson at first leave his character susceptible to an antagonistic label, but he ultimately injects his portrayal with such sympathy and integrity that you end up understanding and admiring him for his quiet courage.

And while I wasn't disappointed by two of the biggest talents in Hollywood, I was pleasantly surprised at how they stepped aside to let the young actors comprising the team shine. Denzel Whitaker*** as James Farmer Jr., the youngest member of the ensemble, emerges as the real hero. Expertly pairing the emotional turbulence of adolescence with a wisdom that extends beyond his 14 years, Whitaker plays Farmer with an intriguing combination of youthful energy and grounded maturity. Nate Parker is fiery, intelligent, and unapologetically outspoken as Henry Lowe**, and Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke, the first ever female debater on the team, is especially impressive when tackling the subject of racial integration in schools, with bold yet dignified delivery of arguments that enables her to hold her own both along her male teammates as well as against her white opponents. Clearly, that the actors are arguing about issues that probe so deeply into their personal histories has motivated such heartfelt performances.

I've been reading reviews complaining that the topics on which the debates are held are rather unoriginal--civil disobedience, feminism, racial discrimination, etc; okay, I concede that they aren't issues that don't already appear to have been beaten to a pulp. But again, the power with which the team makes their rebuttals breathes new life and validity into the seemingly "cliche" subjects. Remember that this is set in the 1930s, when equal education was an audaciously progressive idea and speaking out against white patriarchal society was considered unthinkably bold. Moreover, some subjects may not be as outdated as we think; for instance, as much as we'd like to believe that
recent events have cured America of all forms of racial prejudice, a more realistic look**** (see both article AND comments for my point) shows that America has yet to truly acknowledge a history of discrimination that still retains much of its sting today.

Yet for all the nerves it might hit with its unflinching portrayal of the brutal injustices of the Jim Crow era and beyond--including a particularly disturbing scene involving the aftermath of a lynching--in the end, the film puts forth a positive message, that of a race being able to rejuvenate their own spirits and prove their worth. Through dedication, passion, and unrelenting energy, a team rises above circumstances against their favor to emerge as winners. Although it may sound trite, for me, The Great Debaters is ultimately a story offering hope--and I don't know about you, but right now, I'll take as much hope as I can get.

*Honestly, I don't CARE if Kim Kardashian broke a nail and it worries me that other people do.
**And it doesn't hurt that he's more than a little good looking.
***No relation to Washington or Forest. But wow, imagine the pressure, going through life as an actor with a name like that.
****and the fact that most major award events conveniently failed to recognize this well-deserving film