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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Heavily Fictionalized True Stories

posted by on December 27 at 14:50 PM

I’m kind of hard on The Great Debaters in this week’s film section, and when I read A. O. Scott Stephen Holden’s mostly positive review in the New York Times, I felt bad. (For a second.) I wanted to like the movie, for many of the same reasons Holden lists. It makes it seem cool not only to be smart, but to be intellectual. It defends its protagonist not from accusations of being a Communist, but from the assumption that holding communist ideals—especially in the thick of the thirties—is even remotely scary. It asserts that some kids are gifted, and that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to put them in mainstream classrooms. It also has a cool poster:

The Great Debaters

But the movie refuses to ruffle its audience when it comes to the uniquely abstract challenge of debate itself. As Holden points out,

Robert Eisele’s screenplay imagines a smooth historical arc. The characters’ reactions to these events, it implies, sow the seeds of the civil-rights movement, which is also foreshadowed in the debates, whose topics too conveniently address civil-rights issues. Strangely, the Wiley College team always argues the progressive view. Its initial push to break the color barrier in college debating by competing with a white college in Oklahoma is too neatly paralleled by the debate topic: whether blacks should be allowed to attend state universities. A more intellectually subtle, less manipulative movie would have had the Wiley team arguing at least once against African-American interests.

It’s this—more even than the stupid end crawl that mixes startling facts with patently phony “inspiration”—that brings the movie to its knees. The kids never engage with the most difficult, counterintuitive element of competitive debate: arguing the side you disagree with. The arguments that lead the team to victory always depend on cheap emotional appeals, because why not? Everyone watching the movie already sympathizes with the kids, everyone accepts their initial positions… it’s no wonder the movie moves like a lumbering tortoise. The Great Debaters doesn’t even believe in the skills necessary to be a great debater. It believes in being correct.

How dull.

Nice costumes, though

RSS icon Comments


You want to really believe in your position? Read up on everything you can on the opposing view.

Hell, in college I debated that the American colonies were WRONG in breaking away from England. And I won the debate.

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | December 27, 2007 2:53 PM

Sounds boring as hell.

Posted by Mr. Poe | December 27, 2007 2:59 PM

Interesting. I've never argued with anyone who wasn't completely wrong, while my side was entirely right. It kind of sounds fun, I guess. Maybe I'll try it some time.

Posted by elenchos | December 27, 2007 3:01 PM

This reminds of me countless movies whose depiction of a great poker player is invariably a man with either the intrinsic luck or the apparent unspoken psychic ability to draw an inside ace-high royal flush at need.

Is it that writers and directors are convinced audiences can't appreciate the very craft being showcased, or do they themselves not get it?

Posted by lostboy | December 27, 2007 3:19 PM

Lostboy, look at all of the movies that make the most money.

People love dumbed-down predictable shit. Everybody in Hollywood knows it, which is why the continue to make it.

Posted by Mr. Poe | December 27, 2007 3:26 PM

It sounds like The Great Debaters portrays college debates about as accurately as Indiana Jones portrays archaeology.

Posted by Greg | December 27, 2007 3:40 PM

sharon jones makes a cameo, right?

Posted by jz | December 27, 2007 3:40 PM

Yeah, I misstated my idea a bit.  Granted, you'll never get a mainstream audience to groove on the less-than-intuitive aspects of any craft.  Why, though, do writers and directors feel they have to misrepresent things (great poker by clairvoyance, great debate by cheap emotional ploys) to make them palatably simple?

None of that is as stupid as the scene from Armageddon where they spun the space station to create "gravity" parallel to the axis of rotation.  In writing, it sounds more abstract than it is.  On screen, it was the most memorably intelligence insulting thing I've seen in a modern film.

Posted by lostboy | December 27, 2007 3:47 PM


Posted by Mr. Poe | December 27, 2007 5:43 PM


But at least Indiana Jones is fun. A movie about debate that doesn't have any real debating: boring and lame.

Posted by keshmeshi | December 27, 2007 6:25 PM

In 9th grade Honors English we studied debate for a quarter. I was on a two-woman team that argued against repealing apartheid in South Africa, and we won. :) I was the kid who had a Ban Apartheid sticker on her binder, so I obviously didn't believe a word I was saying. I think we deserved to win though, we were better prepared and had good quotes and stats that our opponents weren't prepared to handle.

Posted by Kristi in Kitsap | December 27, 2007 9:27 PM

the great debaters?

what was wrong with the working title: the master debaters?

Posted by Cale | December 27, 2007 9:33 PM

Anyone who has debated can tell you what an awful business it is. It is so beyond artificial. When I debated in the 80's it was essentially required that no matter what side you were arguing, the position of the other side would result in NUCLEAR WAR!!!!!!!!

Sorry about the caps, but that is fair to the spirit of the times.

I mean, water projects would end in nuclear war, but on the other side, so would not building the water project.

It was bunk beyond belief. Also there was the fact that it was a numbers game. You weren't actually trying to convince anyone, you gave your arguments, and if the other side did not refute all of them, you win. Such nonsense.

They introduced Lincoln Douglass debates right as I was getting out of debate. That was sort of too bad because I think L/D has a shot at not being ridiculous.

Posted by Jim | December 28, 2007 12:54 AM

I hate Denzel Washington. Wasn't it his abuse that caused Halle Berry to lose her ear-sight. Wait. That's not the right word. Hearing, maybe?
Anyway, he's the one who totally oopsed her upside the head and made her lose her hearing.

Posted by jeremy | December 28, 2007 6:44 AM

That New York Times review was actually written by Stephen Holden (he who normally has no truck with animated features). As for The Great Debaters, I agree that it would've been just as inspirational without the falsifications. Alas, Washington has been down this road before, since Norman Jewison's The Hurricane took similar hits (though I felt Jewison's use of "artistic license" was far less egregious). Of course, acclaimed art house films, like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, can play fast and loose with the facts, too...

Posted by Kathy Fennessy | December 28, 2007 12:22 PM

@15: Look at you, actually reading the links! Sorry about that.

Posted by annie | December 28, 2007 1:56 PM

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