Among the many intellectual exercises connected to debate is the ability to defend stances that are seemingly indefensible. I know; I used to debate in high school and remember many a round positing the evils of seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Judging by The Great Debaters, however, you wouldn't think that debate requires much cognitive elasticity. The film, which is based on an inspiring real-life saga, stacks the deck a bit by ensuring its young collegiate heroes are always debating the side of what is good and just and fair.
In other words, The Great Debaters tends to gild the lily. Set in the Jim Crow South of 1935, it follows the triumphs of the debate team of Wiley College, a historically black university in Marshall, Texas. It is a stirring tale of true-life courage and tenacity -- as well as a grim reminder of a not-so-distant segregated past -- but the filmmakers appear unwilling to completely trust their story or their audience.
Director Denzel Washington (his first directorial effort since 2002's Antwone Fisher) and screenwriter Robert Eisele drive home each dramatic point with sledgehammer force. Invariably the Wiley debaters are assigned the affirmative on such matters as civil disobedience (they're for it) and helping the poor (ditto). Even the climactic debate showdown is gussied up, with Wiley's real-life opposing team from the University of Southern California now supplanted by Harvard University.
While such tinkering doesn't cripple the film's emotional pull, it does undermine it. Co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, The Great Debaters is a rousing story delivered with impeccable Hollywood polish. But its use of tried-and-true formula renders it more predictable -- and, therefore, less edgy and resonant -- than one would like. It is equal parts Sports Underdog flick (with Wiley's impromptu debaters the fill-in athletes) and Inspirational Teacher tale.
Our central hero is Wiley educator Melvin Tolson (Washington), who would later achieve great acclaim for his poetry. As coach of the college debate team, Mr. Tolson is tough, demanding and roguishly charming -- in short, he's, you know, Denzel Washington. "Debate is blood-sport," he tells his debaters. "It's combat, but your weapons are words."
Tolson's debate-team warriors consist of Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a troubled and rebellious Lothario; good girl Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett); and 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a whiz kid whose father (the always magnificent Forest Whitaker) is an imposing theologian at the school.
Despite rote conflicts and love triangles and the like, there is little doubt that this exceptional group of students will do Mr. Tolson proud. The Great Debaters doesn't mess around with subtlety. It grabs Big Emotional Payoff Moments by the lapels and shakes them until coins litter the floor. OK, so that's not necessarily a bad thing. The filmmaking is self-assured and fluid, the acting solid and the characters likeable. But sometimes a viewer can choke on all that spoon-feeding.
In the end, however, the picture is a solid crowd-pleaser. And in an election year that likely will see the first African American presidential nominee of a major political party, The Great Debaters: Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition is an instructive reminder of how far this country has come in only 70 years.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2:35.1, the disc boasts flawless picture quality. Lines are sharp; colors are deep and rich. I could not spot any defects such as edge enhancement or combing. All in all, it's a beautiful print transfer that showcases strong work by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is excellent -- clear, crisp and boasting dramatic sound separation. An audio track is also available in French, with optional subtitles in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
A smattering of extras is on Disc One. In The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective (23:09), Washington, Eisele, Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and a slew of elderly Wiley College graduates discuss Melvin Tolson and the real-life debate team of 1935. The featurette relies a bit too much on the views of the filmmakers and actors; a fuller historical perspective would have been nice -- especially since the movie takes some creative license -- but this is not a bad overview. One former Wiley debater points out that the tradition of rhetoric in African American culture helped lead to the gifted orators who headed the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s.
Three deleted scenes have an aggregate length of four minutes, 52 seconds. All three are expendable, but one deleted scene helps explain a reference that remained in the final cut. Viewers can watch each scene separately or use the "play all" function.
Also included on the first disc are music videos for "That's What My Baby Likes" (3:03) and "My Soul Is a Witness" (4:03). Rounding things out is a theatrical trailer and sneak peeks for Grace Is Gone, Cassandra's Dream, I'm Not There and The Hunting Party.
Other supplemental goodies are on Disc Two. It's a generous helping, but most carry the whiff of self-congratulatory promotion. The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music (11:58) features music supervisor G. Marq Roswell, Denzel Washington and others discussing the role of music plays in the film. Similarly, the 10-minute, 45-second Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub provides a mildly compelling window on the mechanics of scoring a movie.
At nearly 22 minutes, Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp might be a bit too long for its own good, but it is impressive to discover the degree of preparation that the actors put into creating their characters. Also worthwhile are the insights of Dr. Thomas Freeman, who founded the debate team at Texas Southern University in 1948.
Speaking of the actors, there is the nine-minute, 44-second A New Generation of Actors, which spotlights Parker, Smollett and Denzel Whitaker. Rather self-explanatory is Forest Whitaker on Becoming James Farmer Sr. (3:58). While the guy is unequivocally a tremendous actor, this is fairly standard promotional fluff. The remaining mini-docs, The 1930's Wardrobe of Sharen Davis (5:28) and The Production Design of David J. Bomba (8:56), will mainly be of interest to cinema buffs.
Finally, The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson provides text to two of his best-known works, "Dark Symphony" and "LAMBDA." A short biography on Tolson, who went on to lead a fascinating life post-Wiley College, would have been more worthwhile.
The Great Debaters: Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition delivers a bundle of extras, alright, but the absence of a commentary track and serious documentary on the true-life Wiley debate team is disappointing. Otherwise, the film is a handsomely made, professional crowd-pleaser that takes flight a few times, but never quite soars.