Film Heavily Fictionalized True Stories
posted by December 27 at 14:50 PMon
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:
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.