The Great Debaters is a movie that honestly surprised me. I went into it with every expectation of seeing a run-0f-the mill drama, but it turned out to be far superior to the average. That said, it's far from perfect, but still a solid film that any fan of the genre should see. People who are not so into dramas will likely see all the same genre trends in this movie, except they're done much, much better than normal, making for a good experience overall.
On that note, this movie does tend to stick to genre conventions. Like so many others, it tackles race and gender issues very deliberately, contains scenes of violence, sex, and alcoholism, and throws tears into the eyes of nearly every major character at some inspirational moment. My biggest gripe along these lines comes in the last three or four scenes of the movie, which scream the ending of just about every underdog story ever put on film.
It's the rest of the movie, i.e. what comes before the ending, that makes it good. Although it goes about the issues very deliberately, it creates an unusually strong feeling of tension around those issues. In some scenes, the cinematic effects really do a good job of putting you in the shoes of the characters. I honestly feared for their lives in a few scenes, and I am not the type of person who gets emotionally invested in characters in movies. So, if you're the type who does, then you'll probably gasp and cry a few times (several of the people I went with did).
The debate scenes serve their purpose well, but they're a bit too movie-like. Allow me to explain. In real debates, the stance that each team is supposed to take is randomly assigned; then they take turns making logical arguments and the winner is determined by judges. In the movie, most of the debates, and all of the ones that had a major plot significance, involved a topic that had something to do with race, and the main characters were always assigned to argue on the side that they would support on their own. For example, in one debate they were assigned to argue in favor of the integration of schools. On its own, that scene is fine, but it's very unlikely that they would have gotten their own side every time. Also, the characters on both sides of each debate had a noticeable tendency to focus more on the emotional side rather than the logical side of the issue. While this can be effective in moderation, it wouldn't leave you with a very strong argument in a real-life debate. The short version of this paragraph is: this movie sacrifices realism in favor of cinematic effect in the debate scenes. I wouldn't normally complain about this issue so much, but this is one of those movies that really tries to portray something real and believable.
The acting is pretty solid. Forest Whitaker is kickass.
I wouldn't recommend The Great Debaters to everyone, but most people will probably be moved by it in one way or another. It's not perfect by any means, and it still needs to stray farther from the all-too-common conventions of similar movies, but overall, I give it my kudos.
Caius's Rating: 3 stars