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Vol. LXII, No. 2
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

IF YOU BELIEVE IN YOURSELVES, YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!: Professor Tolson (Denzel Washington) is boosting the self confidence of his debating team members by recounting examples of how others have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles by believing in their inner capabilities.

The Great Debaters: Inspirational Bio-pic Beset by Historical Inaccuracies

When a movie bills itself as “Inspired by a True Story,” to what extent should it be allowed to take liberties with the truth in order to spin a heartwarming tale which tugs on the heartstrings? That is the question which begs to be answered about The Great Debaters, an inspirational bio-pic about a professor who, in 1935, allegedly created a debate team at a tiny black college which became a nationally recognized powerhouse that took on Harvard University in a showdown aired on radio live all across the country.

The film’s most glaring factual misdirection is that while Wiley College did participate in the championship debating finals that year, its opponent was USC, not Harvard. This fabrication naturally makes one wonder about other aspects of the production. Was the original contest really broadcast live on radio (unlikely)? Was it really the first time, as implied, that a black college competed against a white school in the debate tournament (no)? Etcetera… etcetera… etcetera….

In addition, the picture spread other tall tales. For instance, there’s a scene where Professor Tolson (Denzel Washington) attempts to instill some self respect in his pupils by quoting from Willie Lynch’s 1712 speech that was supposedly delivered to Lynch’s fellow slave owners in which he explained how to mold and control the minds of their slaves.

Well, the problem is that the infamous lecture never took place, and has long been dismissed by academics and experts, some of whom are African-Americans, as an urban legend which first surfaced about 1993. There isn’t any reference to the speech in any literature prior to then. So, how could a professor have lectured about it in 1935? Since I’ve criticized references made to Willie Lynch in other films, it would be hypocritical for me to give The Great Debaters a pass just because the movie delivers such a well-meaning message.

There are additional conceptual obstacles that get in the way of enjoying this consciousness raising drama. For instance, whenever the Wiley team debates, it is conveniently assigned to argue the politically correct side of the issue, whether it’s welfare, lynching, integration, child labor, civil disobedience, or any other subject. Isn’t the mark of a skilled debater the ability to make a convincing case for either side, especially unpopular causes you don’t necessarily believe in?

In spite of the above problems, there is still much to recommend in this movie. Denzel Washington’s performance as the film’s protagonist is excellent, as is Forest Whitaker, in his role as Tolson’s colleague, James Farmer, Sr. Gina Rivera and Kimberly Elise capably play their wives, respectively, in supporting roles.

The cast is rounded out by four gifted young actors who comprise the Wiley debate team. Only one of these four characters, 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), is based on a real person. The precocious Farmer, Jr. would later go on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and become a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

However, the other three debaters, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), her boyfriend Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) are fictional. This makes the closing credits misleading, since it relates Tolson’s and Farmers’ subsequent activities along with alleged later achievements of the others, even though they never existed.

One can only conclude that this movie was designed for youngsters, not adults. If that’s the case, do we want impressionable young minds’ understanding of history to be misinformed in this fashion? The film is well intentioned and well executed, so I recommend it (with reservations) because there’s something terribly troubling about a feel-good film packed with so many misrepresentations of fact.

Does the truth matter, or is reality retroactively up for grabs? Let the debate begin.

Good (2 stars). Rated PG-13 for profanity, ethnic slurs, mature themes, brief sexuality, violence, and disturbing images. Running time: 123 minutes. Studio: MGM.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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