Thursday, April 15

Review: The Great Debaters

The text on the back of the box of The Great Debaters was promising enough. It's based on a real story about a team of black students from 1930's Texas who beat Harvard, the reigning champion, in a debating contest. I did some debating in high school, so that sparked my interest. And the racism of the time would provide an interesting backdrop, right? Sadly, the movie sparks about as much as a wet firecracker.

The tale of a hard-but-fair teacher who mentors a gang of gifted youngsters to greatness is one we've seen maybe too many times. And while that is not necessary a bad thing, The Great Debaters plays it kind of... well, safe and simple. The teacher is a hero, the team quarrel among themselves, they are held back by the nasty white people, yadie yadie ya. It is so incredibly Oprah-inspirational it fails to really make a fist. Which is not too strange, seeing that ms. Winfrey produced the damn movie.

More lens flare = more inspirational

That's not to say the movie is a complete disaster. Everything looks really pretty and I'd be surprised to see either Denzel Washington or Forest Withaker act badly. The soundtrack is pretty good as well, with black music right from the little houses in the swamps. True roots music. But it doesn't save the music from ultimately failing where Almost Famous gloriously succeeded: taking a form that has been used many times and not doing anything new with it.

"I will go further, and assert that nature without culture can often do more to deserve praise than culture without nature"
These words were spoken by perhaps the greatest rhetoric of all time: Marcus Tullius Cicero. His way with words has been fundamental in the art of speaking in public to this day. And now I can conveniently paraphrase him to word my most fundamental critique on The Great Debaters: it is definitely culture, but I miss a lot of nature. Some raw manner of captivating the public, instead of just dwelling on the form. And although it might be ironic for a movie with so many black actors, I missed soul. It all works on a basic level, but what could have been a great movie falls back into a cliched story with stock characters that in the end fail to impress.


P. S. If you are determined to watch a movie like this, Freedom Writers is kind of good.

Is it racist to use gospel music under a movie about black people? Well, I don't really care. This song rocks.

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