There's so much compassion in Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," it makes it easy to forgive the screenplay's pandering habits and sentimental full court press. The bottom line is, this is a stirring. composed portrait of African-American intelligence and pride, and if you poured this content over Tyler Perry's head, he would melt.
A professor at Wiley College in Texas, Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) was a fiery soul who challenged his gifted students by forming a debate squad looking to take on all comers. Selecting a group of his brightest undergraduates (including Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, and Nate Parker), Tolson took his squad around the country, coaching the debate newcomers to frequent victory. Facing racial tension, Tolson's dangerous side work as a sharecropper union organizer (and alleged communist), and the students' own conflicts of heart and home (embodied by Forest Whitaker as James L. Farmer Sr.), the squad must place their differences aside and prepare for the ultimate test: a debate with Harvard, broadcast nationwide on the radio.
Traditionally, when a producer's name is highlighted in the marketing of a motion picture, it's typically there for vanity reasons. With "Great Debaters," one of the backers is Oprah Winfrey, and the name alone might give prospective viewers a great deal of insight about the content of this film.
This is the second movie directed by Washington ("Antwone Fisher"), but his first with a compositional personality and resolve to set a specific mood. Here, the location is Texas during the 1930s, where the levels of racial hatred and cultural change were eclipsed only by the humidity. Washington nails a stately tone from the opening moments; a collegiate atmosphere where intelligent characters, not caricatures, have gathered to learn and fight for their right to grow has citizens and students. It's an emboldening thematic rush that Washington nurtures to splendid results.
The arena of debate is the star of the show here, presenting fine young actors extravagant monologues that are pulled off with terrific enthusiasm -- these talents love to act. Smollett, Whitaker, and Parker form a captivating triangle of faces and temperaments, and Washington knows how to photograph them for maximum emotion. Some of the best moments are the students and their rising trust in each other, permitting the actors time to sculpt the roles into substantial characterizations.
Washington himself is a bit of a surprise here. His performance as the authoritative Tolson is more ragged and mannered than previous efforts, in an attempt to depict the coach as a rebel and freethinker, and someone who looks to change not only his students, but also the law of the land. The union busting subplot of "Great Debaters" is the least compelling element of the movie, and distracts the pace of the picture at all the wrong moments. Washington's take on Tolson still contains the expected tornado of bravado, spitfire dialogue, and deafening vocal authority, but it's also tweaked in intriguing ways, including a snippet of some singing. This is the Denzel that needs to be seen onscreen more often.
Race was a challenge for the Wiley team, and it's a rut in an otherwise notable film. Channeling his experience on the icky "Remember the Titans," Washington steers "Great Debaters" into dangerously cartoonish areas, where every single Caucasian character is either a WASPy elitist or a sister-humpin' redneck. Each new scene of racial conflict deflates the film more. It's a tiring ploy to bait the audience, and for a film that's celebrating the human spirit, it's ridiculous to see the screenplay sink so low just to find conflict. "Great Debaters" is based on a true story, but I refuse to accept the artificiality of these moments, especially when the rest of the film is consumed with a complex assortment of situations.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) isn't something that will generally show off the capabilities of a standard Blu-ray player, but what's presented here is a comfortable read of locations and faces representative of the picture's dramatic intent. Detail isn't as strong as hoped for, but close-ups showcase pleasing textures, revealing subtle acts of response and the wear and tear of humid locations. Costuming is also afforded a winning display on the disc, offering accelerated hues and careful craftsmanship. Exteriors bring about lush greens and browns, creative evocative environments, while interiors retain their oaky academic look. Shadow detail is troubling on some hairstyles and background action, but it's mostly supportive and effective.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix shows real pronounced capability during scoring cues, which effectively intertwine with dialogue exchanges to create a proper sense of drama. Vocal work is sturdy, easily understood throughout the film, while assuming a powerful purpose during moments of speech. Some low-end is here, emerging during the feature's few flashes of violence, but the track is primarily devoted to the emotions emerging from the characters. A French mix is also included.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
"Deleted Scenes" (4:53) provide some additional depth for the younger characters, including a nice, firm exchange between James L. Farmer Sr. and his son.
"A Historical Perspective" (23:08) sits down with the real-life inspirations behind the story, highlighting Washington's attempt to bridge the gap between subject and actor through filmed interviews. Additional conversations with the cast and crew provide an understanding of the tension and triumphs of the era.
"A Heritage of Music" (17:07) spotlights the sounds of the period, with music supervisor G. Marq Roswell assembling a hodgepodge of artists to contribute to the bouncy, spiritual tone of the soundtrack.
Music Videos for "That's What My Baby Likes" (3:05) and "My Soul is a Witness" (4:03) are included.
"Actor/Director Denzel Washington" (6:25) spotlights the filmmaking effort from the superstar, isolating his command of the set and his work with actors.
"A New Generation of Actors" (9:46) reflects upon the work of the younger talent, who cut their own way through the production, using Washington's leadership to find their own dramatic path.
"The Production Design of David J. Bomba" (8:58) talks period film challenges with the professional in question, who worked to created a vibrant academic feel to the film, while tending to the reality of the outdoor environments.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Great Debaters" rebounds with an emotional finale set on the Harvard stage. Washington doesn't give in to sweetened sentiment, instead guiding to the film to a gentle lump-in-your-throat finale that pays off the film well without a parade of tears and multiple orchestra swells. This might not be the most dramatically insistent film, but it hits all the right heartfelt notes when it counts. Oprah should be proud.
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