The Great Debaters (2007); Dir. Denzel Washington


The Great Debaters first came onto my radar because of this important site’s multiple posts on it. I am not sure of that blogger’s name, but she was determined that people would get out and see and support this film – a film about a debating team from a small black college in the 1930s that ended up defeating the national champions at Harvard in an historic debate. She writes:

Which came first the chicken or the egg? Is it that Black folks and White folks don’t want to see something different out of Hollywood, or is it that Hollywood only seems to want to promote the same old narrow range of African American stories? If we don’t go see this in droves, it might not be because we don’t want to see it, it might be because a whole lot of folks don’t know this movie is even out there. People can say what they want about Tyler Perry, but that man knows how to market a movie. The folks responsible for marketing “The Great Debaters” need to call Tyler and stop dialing it in. Get with it people! Time’s a wastin’!

That’s a site I read with some regularity, and she was nearly evangelical in her fervor to get people to go see this film – a film about the power of the intellect, a film about how to fight with words, and, all in all, a truly inspirational story. I didn’t end up going to see The Great Debaters in the theatre, but I saw it last night, and just have to add my voice to the chorus: Wonderful movie!!

I think I’ve written before of my deep adoration for the “formula” of the sports movie. It just works for me (I mean, if it’s done well). I love the whole struggling against adversity theme. I love how a group of disparate individuals has to come together to form a team. I love how there’s a hard-ass coach who is determined to make his kids rise to the occasion. I also love it when there’s a social or economic aspect added … as in: kids who may be downtrodden or who don’t have a leg up … are shown the “way out” of their potential miserable futures – through this one big event, whatever it may be. This formula is annoying to some people, and it feels predictable to them. But to me, it is one of the most deeply satisfying story formulae in existence. I can settle in. I can relax. I know how it’s going to go, because that’s what a formula is, but it resonates with me. The movie can be shallow or deep, I don’t care – it’s the formula I love. Remember the Titans, Blue Crush, The Rookie, hell Searching for Bobby Fischer qualifies … Bring It On qualifies …
— Hoosiers
— All the Right Moves
— Breaking Away
— Miracle
— Bend it like Beckham
— 61*
— Vision Quest
— Rocky
— Karate Kid
— Stand and Deliver – with the sport being calculus …

You get the point. Love the formula.

So here we have The Great Debaters which is, in essence, a sports movie – only the sport is debating. SO SATISFYING. Denzel Washington directed, his second foray, after 2002’s Antwone Fisher. He doesn’t try to be too clever here, his directing is gentle, specific, and very well crafted. He understands the formula and he pours this individual story into it, and it totally works. We have the tough coach of the debating team (played by Washington) – who is determined that these kids will have a shot, and the way they will have a shot – is through using their minds. He is fierce about that. He trains them in rhetoric, and improvisational responses, he makes them do mounds of research – gathering contextual quotes … so that no matter the situation in a debate, they will be prepared.

It’s the 1930s South, so there is almost complete segregation. It is only when their small debate team starts to go undefeated that white colleges start to say, ‘Okay, let’s debate these Negroes …” The first inter-racial debate takes place in a tent in a field, because the university in question is so segregated that the black kids would not be allowed in the auditorium where debates normally would take place. It’s a stressful situation, you can feel it in the audience and in the debating kids. It’s all well and good to debate other black kids, over issues they all already agree on … but to debate white kids? In front of a white audience? How will THAT go over? Watching these kids rise to the occasion (and because it’s a sports movie, you get to know each one of them a little bit, and you love them … you just love them) is intensely moving. I was a mess.

Denzel is great, too – but for me, the performance of the film is Forest Whitaker’s. There’s something about Forest Whitaker’s intensity that, in and of itself, makes me want to cry. But here, seeing him in the role of a husband and father, a learned man who speaks 7 languages, a theology professor at the college – who holds his children to high standards in all things – academic, spiritual, moral – He’s just marvelous. He’s dignified, stately, a little bit scary … but with an underbelly of warmth and kindness. There’s a moment when his son, played by Denzel Whitaker (and that kid absolutely killed me) has suffered a serious defeat … It was his big chance at a debate, and he choked … he’s the youngest kid on the team, only 14 years old, and he also struggles with the fact that his father is so illustrious, teaches at the college where he is a student (he’s obviously a prodigy, small wonder with a dad like that) … and he knows his father is so stern about accomplishment and doing the family proud … The kid runs into the house and starts looking through the rooms for his mother – calling out, “Mom? Mom?” He is devastated. He knows he will be a disappointment to his parents … but in that moment, he needs a mother’s love. A little coddling. He’s only 14 years old. But Forest Whitaker is home, and hears him calling out – so he appears in the door, holding a book in one hand, looking concerned and serious. His son looks at him for just one second, just one second of hesitation – and then races towards him and throws himself into his father’s arms. Please just watch how Forest Whitaker reacts, and responds to this unexpected embrace … He doesn’t know what has happened with his son, and normally he takes a very strict tone with him … but in that moment, he’s a little boy, and so … Forest Whitaker adjusts, in that moment, to what his son needs from him. Tremendously moving moment, and the kind of acting I love best. Silent, eloquent, powerful.

The film builds in suspense and tension, through victories, defeats, and side-line plots involving the local sherriff and the sharecroppers trying to organize into a union … culminating in the debate team’s journey to Cambridge to debate Harvard. They are little country kids, from a small town in Texas, totally segregated … so to see them emerge into the palatial train station in Boston, being met by one of the members of the Harvard debate team, who is going to show them around and escort them back to their rooms, etc. … and then to show them the debate hall where they will be debating – an absolutely intimidating gorgeous room that looks kind of like the House of Lords or something. The kids stroll about on the stage, gobsmacked, awestruck, excited, and scared to death.

I love Denzel, although I find him a bit too unendingly humorless for my taste – and so it’s really really cool to see him here, playing things a bit lighter (when it’s called for) – to see him in the classroom, pointing at this student to rebut, this one … demanding that they strive for excellence. The 1930s setting adds to this man’s obvious sense of mission: These kids must be strong to face the outside world. These kids must know how to respond … and not just respond, but respond with their brains, their intellects … Sure, it’s an education. They’re getting a great education, too. But there’s more going on here than just that. Denzel plays both sides of that beautifully.

If you rent the film, make sure – MAKE SURE – you watch the Special Features. There are two documentaries:

— The story of the original debate team at Wiley College – where they track down some of the original members, who are now in their 80s … to talk about their memories of that time, the college, the debate coach, everything. Denzel sits and interviews them.

— A short film about Denzel as a director

Both of these special features made me see Denzel in another light. NOT the “actor” light – but the collaborator, the director, the intelligent head of the entire project. Watching him kindly and sweetly ask the octogenarian debate team questions was so moving for me – He has things he wants to know, he is so thrilled that they have all showed up for the interviews – but he also had to make his voice very loud and very clear because most of them are obviously a little bit deaf – There’s just such a kindness in him here. You can just see his mind at work, clicking away … “Oh, I can use this … Oh, this is good stuff … I can use that …” But at the same time, just having a nice conversation with these people who were there at that important moment in American history. Amazing. These people are AMAZING. You just love them!! Talking about what it was they “got” from the debate team, what the college was like – all that. It was incredibly moving, and there are a couple of times when you can see Washington reacting, just listening to one of them talk – and he’s got a sheaf of papers in his hands, notes, and either a huge smile is on his face … or a contemplative look … It’s a wonderful documentary about Wiley College, the 1930s, segregation, education – all that.

And then the second special feature, which is basically a “making of The Great Debaters” – focusing primarily on Denzel Washington as a director. You know, there are interviews with all the cast members, producers, all that – but there’s one moment in particular that was so moving to me that I rewound to watch it 4 or 5 times. There’s a scene where a debate is being broadcast on the radio – and the entire Wiley College student body has gathered in the auditorium to listen. It is a crucial moment for the team. When it is announced that Wiley College has won the debate, the auditorium erupts into chaos. Hugging, screaming, hats in air, etc. Great scene – a crucial part of any sports movie, an essential piece of the formula. So in the special features, you see Denzel Washington, glasses on a string around his neck, coaching the crowd of extras what he wants from them. “This is the biggest thing that has ever happened in this school – so you all can just go nuts, okay?” Then he counts down – “One ….. two ……..” When he calls out “three” it is time to roll, and the place goes APESHIT. Hugging, screaming, jumping, absolute bedlam. It’s a joy to watch. The camera pans back a bit to see Denzel on the sidelines, watching it all happen – and he’s laughing, but also astonished at how into it everyone is – he can’t believe the decibel level – and he kind of stands there, almost shy (like: “I did this??”) – his hand on his head, kind of massaging it, an amazed expression on his face. I just wanted to hug him. He was so pleased, but even he was shocked at how far the crowd of extras took it! You then see him thanking the whole crowd – all of them who must have been like, “Holy shit, that is Denzel freakin’ Washington standing RIGHT THERE …” but he gave a gracious speech, thanking them for their time, expressing understanding of what a hard day it had been, long and tedious – and he was very grateful.

There are a bunch of moments showing Denzel at work – which were truly illuminating for me, in terms of his process, and also his enthusiasm. Director is different from actor. You’re in charge. Every second you are called upon to make decisions. Everyone comes at you from every side: “how do these shoes look for the wife?” “There’s a little problem with the location scouting …” “We have 20 minutes before the sun goes down … should we go on?” Etc. Big and little – the buck stops with the director. It was truly a joy to watch Denzel in that role.

But most of all, I loved watching him sitting on the sidelines, either looking at the monitor, or looking directly at the action. And he always sat there with a big happy smile on his face. He says at one point in an interview, “I like being a director. It makes me happy when other people do well.”

You can totally see that in how he reacts to the work of other people, smiling at the monitor, or clutching at his own head during the bedlam in the auditorium, thinking, “Holy crap … these people are into it … How AWESOME!”

Yes. It is awesome.

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12 Responses to The Great Debaters (2007); Dir. Denzel Washington

  1. Ann Marie says:

    Wow, just watched this on a plane awhile ago on a long flight back from Ireland and *loved* it. I totally agree the sports formula thing. I *still* get nervous that maybe the boys from Hickory High won’t win the big game.

    The DVD extras for Great Debaters sound really interesting! Will add to Netflix queue.

  2. Lisa says:

    OMG! A movie I’ve seen!

    My mom, A, and I saw it over Christmas. I debated (heh) taking a 10-year-old to see it because I thought he’d be bored, but he wasn’t. He loved it.

    The lynching scene was difficult for him to process, though. I think we of a certain age forget that our kids have no experience with the segretation, overt racism, busing, etc. that we did as young people. Where my mom and I never blinked at that scene (it would’ve been unrealistic movie without it, so we almost — and it’s sad — expected it), A was VERY disturbed. He kept asking, “What did that boy DO?” and my saying, “He didn’t do ANYTHING, he was just black,” wasn’t sinking in. In his world, if you’re punished, it’s because you did something, not because you just ARE something.

    But it lead to some deep conversations about race today — how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go

  3. red says:

    Lisa – I can totally see how a young kid would like the movie, and also have lots of questions about it. That’s great that you all could do that with him!

    I just loved the scenes of Forest Whitaker and his wife and the other kids in the family sitting around the radio, listening to their son debate halfway across the country.


  4. red says:

    Ann – yes, seeing these little frail old ladies and men (but still sharp as tacks intellectually) reminisce about their days on the debating team in 1935 … and Denzel listening and taking notes … got me right in the throat, I’ll tell ya!!

  5. jen says:

    I saw this movie twice in the theater. Once with my friend and once with the entire 7th grade on a field trip (this was a HUGE field trip movie for schools this year, btw).

    It was interesting to watch it with my 13 year old students who are African American, born and bred Brooklynites. (Added to it the Jena Six fiasco that we studied that fall.) They did watch the movie with a bit of a attitude of “this is ancient history” but at the same time led to discussions about how things are the same, but different now.

    (Before you are all impressed with my students, trust me – I spent a lot of the movie keeping people out of the bathrooms, lobbies and sneaking into Alvin and the Chipmunks…)

  6. red says:

    Jen – I’m so happy to hear that this was a big field trip movie. That seems very right, to me.

    I read somewhere that Denzel donated 1 million dollars to Wiley College to start up its debate team again, and I just find that so moving!!

  7. tracey says:

    Denzel Washington has always struck me as extremely gracious and open. It’s so nice to hear he’s that way even when he’s in charge. I haven’t seen this — just hadn’t felt the pull — but maybe I will now.

  8. red says:

    tracey – I think you would love it!!

  9. red says:

    Jen – I am thrilled to hear that this was a field trip movie. Seems perfectly right to me. The only way “out” (or as Denzel says in the documentary – “the only way up”) is thru education. I read somewhere that Denzel donated a million dollars to Wiley college to start up the debate team again. That’s integrity. It kills me!!

  10. red says:

    Oh, and one other thing I absolutely adored about this film – and, in my opinion, would not have worked without it: the opponents in the debates were all just as articulate, just as convincing, as our heroes. It was not either/or … The whole point of being good at debate is that you could convincingly debate EITHER side … so the Harvard boys at the end are not portrayed as evil priviliged white boys (although they do make reference to that fact) – their thoughts are well organized, their positions are clear – but also eloquent and fair ..

    The whole film ends up being about the true Socratic nature of debate … it’s fantastic. To have a worthy opponent … a worthy foe …

    The film flat out would not have worked (for me) if the opponents in the debates had been portrayed as fire-breathing right-wing dragons – which would have been (I think) SUCH an easy trap to fall into in a film such as this one.

  11. Jen W. says:

    Now I have to see this! I think it’s so cute that the kid in the movie was actually named after Denzel Washington. What a coincidence that he also has the last name of his other co-star!

  12. dew says:

    I love Denzel so much as an actor that it’ll be fascinating to see what he does as a director. And this sounds like a great story, even if someone else had directed it. Off to add it to my queue.

    I came over from Diana’s blog, where she praised your book reviews, and what should happen but I end up commenting on a movie post.