There's a tracking shot that ends with a hand snaking up a woman's hip. Then there's a brawl. A knife is pulled. Young Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), though half his assailant's size, wrestles the knife from him and seems set to cut the man's throat. A solid, stern, Denzel Washington-looking cotton picker named Melvin Tolson breaks up the fight before Lowe ruins his life.
In your everyday underdog-makes-good-competition-type flick (Hoosiers, Bad News Bears, Mighty Ducks), the purpose of this humble entry point is to provide a base of crappiness upon which to build an hour-and-30-minute monument to hard work, perseverance and pluck. A dusty neighborhood baseball diamond contrasted with the state-of-the-1970s-art Houston Astrodome, for example, or a janky public skating rink to hold against the relative splendor of the Vancouver Canucks' home ice.
In The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington's second stab at directing, though, the intent is different. The next time Lowe sees Tolson, he's teaching the young man's poetry class at Wiley College. Soon, obviously, the plucky Lowe is on the debate team, along with a chubby dude, a girl (scandalous for the time!) and a 14-year-old genius. Lowe is brilliant but wild. The team wins time and again while Lowe questions Tolson's authority at every turn. It's in one such exchange that we begin to realize where The Great Debaters' intentions lie. After Lowe smarmily asks Tolson to open up about himself, Tolson then tells an apocryphal story about the man for whom lynching was named. He was a brutal slave master, says Tolson, whose great innovation was to keep slaves' bodies strong while making their minds weak. "The job of myself," he says, "is to give you back your beautiful minds."
The speakeasy of the film's beginning, then, is more than a humble starting place. It's a dirty, sweat-drenched symbol of life under Jim Crow, making the film itself a metaphor for the African-American community's nascent struggle for equality and the reclamation of their humanity.
A lot of hay has been made about the liberties taken with what purports to be a true story. The Wiley debate team really did beat the national champions that year, but it was USC, not Harvard. Certain characters, apparently, are amalgamations of several real people. Why that would rankle people is self-evident: you hear "based on a true story" and you expect historical accuracy. To dismiss the film because of that, though, is to unduly conflate art with marketing and also to give historical accuracy far too close an audience with Truth. The inaccuracies strengthen the art and thus the truths striven for by this fine but imperfect film, even if they diminish the history.
If the filmmakers hadn't chosen Harvard -- the paragon of intellectual elitism, certainly, but also, in a sense, of whiteness -- as Wiley College's ultimate foe, it would have lessened the impact of the film and thus the movement for which it serves as metaphor. Washington set out to mythologize a team and a movement. He's done a good job of it, using a clich & eacute;d for to package a mythos-making film. (Rated PG-13)