Friday, May 9, 2008

The Great Debaters

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Inspirational Bio-Pic Brought to DVD

When a movie bills itself as “Inspired by a True Story,” to what extent should it be allowed to take liberties with the truth? That is the question which begs to be answered in the course of appraising this inspirational bio-pic about a debate team from a tiny black college which allegedly took on Harvard University in a big showdown for the national championship.
The film’s most glaring, factual faux pas is that while Wiley College’s opponent was not Harvard at all, but USC. This fabrication naturally makes one wonder about other aspects of this recreation. Was the original contest really broadcast live on radio? (Unlikely) Was it even the first time, as implied, that a black college competed against a white school in the debate tournament? (No) Etcetera… etcetera…
Furthermore, the picture propagated plenty of other tall tales. For instance, there’s a scene where Professor Tolson (Denzel Washington) attempts instill some self respect in his pupils by quoting from Willie Lynch’s 1712 speech supposedly delivered to fellow slave owners about 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, even African-American, as an urban legend created around 1993. Since I’ve criticized references made to Willie Lynch by other flicks, it would be hypocritical for me to give this flick a pass just because it’s such a well-meaning message movie.
All of the fibs aside, there is still much to recommend here. Denzel certainly delivers as the film’s plucky protagonist, as do Forest Whitaker, Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Jermaine Williams. Well-Intentioned and well-executed, but recommended with reservations only because there’s still something terribly troubling even about a feelgood flick packed with so many misrepresentations.

Good (2 stars)
Rated PG-13 for profanity, ethnic slurs, mature themes, brief sexuality, violence and disturbing images.
Running time: 124 minutes
Studio: Genius Products
2-Disc DVD Extras: Deleted scenes, a couple of music videos, and nine featurettes.

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