Monday, January 14, 2008

FILM: The Great Debaters

Still working the year-end backlog of good films, we caught The Great Debaters on Saturday night. We expected an uplifting inspirational film, and it definitely delivered. The baseline story you know going in, so the success of the movie depended on the vivid depiction of life in east Texas 1936 for black people, the richness of the characters' backstories and development, and the powerful performances of a great cast. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the English and rhetoric professor who inspires and coaches the famous team to victory, with great verve, and Forest Whitaker gives an outstanding performance as James Farmer, Sr., the educator, theologian, and father of one of the younger debaters. The elder Farmer is portrayed as a gentle, thoughtful man, and Whitaker conveys a rich variety of feeling in this character with masterful reserve. These are the "stars", but the film wouldn't have worked without strong performances from the three young actors who play the debaters. Nate Parker, as Henry Lowe, the oldest of the college kids, shines in this role as a scrappy orphan with a good heart and hard edges, torn between dropping out and striving toward a higher calling. Jurnee Smollett is spot on as Samantha Booke, the modest but passionate girl determined to become a lawyer. And Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker, nor to Denzel Washington, except that he was named after him) won me over as the youngest debater, James Farmer, Jr., trying to grow in the shadow of his renowned father. Some of the best parts of the film were the interplay between James Farmer Junior and Senior, with each growing and responding to the other, illustrating the generational differences in that time of great trial. There is a powerful scene where James Farmer Sr. is shaken down and humiliated in front of his family by a white trash pig farmer, and his concern is to mollify the farmer just to keep his family safe and get out of the situation quietly. This makes a pivotal impression on James Jr., who is both appalled at the injustice of the situation and disappointed in his father for not standing up for what was his right. We see how the experience influences and reverberates in both father and son later in the film. With both James Jr. and Samantha, we come to see how much they've been sheltered by their parents from knowing exactly how brutal life could be for black people in Texas 1936, when they come face to face with the reality in a sudden harsh encounter. Their experiences, both of being somewhat sheltered and of having some harsh reality calls, ring true, I think, to explaining how these remarkable kids turned out to be the great people they would all three turn out to be.

Fairly early in the film, there is a scene where the professor is drilling the students on enunciation by making them answer a catechism while holding a radish in their teeth. The prophetic catechism (which makes a poignant reprise later in the film), goes like this:

Prof: "Who is the Judge?"
Students: "The judge is God."
Prof: "Why is He the judge?"
Students: "He decides who wins and loses; not my opponent."
Prof: "Who is your opponent?"
Students: "My opponent does not exist."
Prof: "Why does your opponent not exist?"
Students: "He is a mere dissenting voice to the truth I speak." *
It's a great message, and it's absolutely right. Nothing is so compelling as the truth. That message came back to me on Sunday when I was thinking, not about this movie, but about various people who have preached at our church, and about what made one sermon better than another. We have one young intern in particular, who has given a few sermons this past year, and she is dynamite. I remember her very first sermon, she had that congregation on the edge of its pews like nobody before her, there were moments you could have heard a pin drop. And there were other moments where our congregation -- which is NOT prone to doing this -- was spontaneously shouting out "amen!". Why was it so good? Because she spoke the truth -- the raw, unvarnished, vulnerable truth of her own experience. It doesn't get more powerful than that. Thinking about that, my mind flashed back on the movie, and that catechism, and the injunction "speak the truth". And that's exactly what those debaters did in 1936 when they beat Harvard.** And that's exactly what this movie did when it told this story.

* This is my memory of the quote. I've seen slightly different versions of it floating around the Internet, so I'm not sure which if any is authoritative. I don't think the one on IMDB is exactly right, as parts of it don't even make sense (a "dissenting voice of the truth I speak"??).

** Apparently, the Harvard part was a fictional embellishment. In the real life story, the historical debate was between Wiley College and University of Southern California. California leading the nation again, but then I suppose Harvard makes for better drama.

Catty gay postscript: In addition to being an impressive actor, Nate Parker is fine, easy on the eyes.

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