DVD/Blu-ray Reviews

The Great Debaters



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</script></div>{/googleAds}Being relatively new to the world of film critic (this one will mark around the 80 mark in films I have been privileged to give my thoughts on) the process of watching a film and sharing an assessment on it still seems rather a peculiar thing at times. After all, movies, like any work of art, are a subjective medium there are no right or wrong assessments, just what you take from them but still, even with a subjective topic, fierce debate can and does arise...

So here I find myself charged with reviewing a film that, essentially, follows the subject of debating. It is a film steeped in a genre extremely difficult to pull off: the ‘uplifting, historic, lesson-learning drama;' it was directed by arguably one the finest actors to ever grace celluloid, Mr. Denzel Washington; and it has an important story to tell that at least on face value isn't going to set most interests on fire: a film about a team of a very gifted African American debaters in the ‘30's strive against all odds and prejudices to defeat Harvard in a debate. A debate movie doesn't prick up the ears like... ‘Asteroid hits Earth' type taglines, but take a closer look - it's more engaging than it sounds.

â"So, how to assess it?" I ask myself. This genre of film usually doesn't sit well with me. Even in big popcorn flicks, in scenes where people rise up and cheer when the underdog(s) overcome all obstacles, and what follows is a moment of embracing and tears and hugging and loud drums building to a crashing symbol of ‘YES! We, they, whoever did it'... it always catches my gag reflex. So to sit through a film that, by its very genre, will require such a Denouement and NOT to roll my eyes says something for the film but this film didn't quite make it.

The answer to my question has to be assess this film on what it promises to provide, and for the most part ‘The Great Debaters' admirably succeeds in delivering its message. It's the method of delivery, which I am going to call... safe, where this film loses its power, and while engaging - if I am to be honest - an initially disinterested viewer for a good while, the formulaic approach and shyness to dig into the harder topics of racism and inequality toward African Americans takes away from the film's message. As the most poignant example, the film depicts the lynching of a person in front of our heroes, which affects each character in different ways that come to bear on the finale. But what strikes almost immediately during this scene is how ineffectual it is. And this is true of all scenes that merely skid the edges of these horrific topics.

It could be argued that the heart of the story is what the Debaters do with those experiences, keeping things on them, but to understand their progression from enduring these atrocities, we have to experience it through them, not from the sidelines where they and subsequently we are nothing more than bystanders to it. This becomes a glaring misstep because these issues of racism and inequality are intrinsically important to our characters' journey, and at no time do you get the sense of direct fear or threat that these people faced because the depiction of the darker elements of the story are bland at best, always happening to others, and are simply not moving because of it. Had the story relied simply on the premise of a team of debaters besting the best it wouldn't have mattered, but the film wants to make a point of these issues almost from the first frame and fails to impact with them as strongly as they do with the rest. There are really two history lessons folded in this story: the biographical accomplishments of these gifted students, and the problems their race faced in the 30's. The former works; the latter does not.

Where the film excels is with its performers. While, unsurprisingly, Washington and Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker deliver flawless performances, its newcomers: Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forrest) Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker that prove compellingly watchable and remarkably gifted.

The film is beautifully shot, and skillfully designed the 1930's haven't looked this good in a while. The music is moving and is uplifting. Any moans about historical accuracies are a waste of time like all stories based on true events, liberties are taken with facts and dates, but in its intent to bring to light the story of a small group of hard-working, inspirational young people in a time of great upheaval and change ‘The Great Debaters' is a resounding success. It's timidness, unfortunately as obvious as the talent that crowds its frames, is what takes it away from exceptional to enjoyable.


DVD

DVD Details:


Screen Formats: 1.85:1

Subtitles: None

Language and Sound: English: English: Dolby Digital 5.1

Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access; deleted scenes; trailer.

* Featurettes
o The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective (23:09)
* Deleted Scenes - (04:52) 3 scenes that didn't make the final cut with optional "play all" function
* Music Video - That's What My Baby Likes" (3:03); My Soul Is a Witness" (4:03)
* Trailer - Original theatrical trailer for The Great Debaters and Grace Is Gone, Cassandra's Dream, I'm Not There and The Hunting Party.

Number of Discs: 1 with Keepcase Packaging

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