It’s been 2.5 weeks since The Great Debaters opened nationwide. To date, the weeper’s only made $22,013,765 domestically, despite tireless promotion, including a semi-constant barrage of trailer airings (at least on BET, during Oprah, and at various intervals during your favorite primetime rerun).
Why is it performing so poorly? I know I, for one, expected to see some hefty numbers the weekend after Christmas. With a six-day opening, surely a Harpo film with Denzel both before and behind the lens was gonna mop the floor with hair-pieced Nicholas Cage’s bad National Treasure sequel, right?
Guess again. Not only did The Great Debaters fail to win the box office, it didn’t even crack the top five grossing films in its opening weekend. The “loosely interpreted” biopic came in sixth, with $6,005,180 on 1,171 screens! Unbelievable!
This isn’t like that time when the O decided to adapt Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the big screen. Everybody knew that was box office poison. But The Great Debaters is the rousing tale of the first Black debate team ever to challenge a White college… and Denzel’s in it! Come on! It’s the academic equivalent of Glory Remember the Road to the Titans! And everybody loves Denzel, right?
Not quite. Perhaps a partial cause of the film’s unexpected under-performance is the idea of Denzel investing in a thoroughly Black endeavor. His Melvin Tolson is no Don Pedro of Aragon, Gray Grantham, Dudley, Creasy, John Quincy Archibald, or Ben Marco. In other words, it’s not a role intended for a White dude or one “written without race in mind.” Washington’s interpretation of Tolson is as a militant/radical–a borderline socialist whose commitment to unionizing Southern sharecroppers and farmers (both White and Black) rivals and nearly supersedes his commitment to being a precipitator for the First Black Blank to Do Blank.
Other possible sources of Great Debaters backlash:
1. The considerable Oprah backlash regarding her support of Obama.
2. The fact that Wiley College never actually debated Harvard. Ever.
3. The nattering nitpickers dedicated to spreading the word on the film’s other historical inaccuracies.
4. The overall kitsch associated with the burgeoning First Black Blank to Do Blank genre.
5. The overall kitsch associated with the Sports Team film genre.
6. There’s a lynching in it. And who’s really tryin’ to go to the movies to see a brother’s charred body hanging from a noose on Christmas Day? What a downer!
7. Denzel’s got an S-curl… and he’s rockin’ his American Gangster wardrobe, like it’s not supposed to be 1935. Talk about your historical inaccuracies.
8. It’s not a broad, slapstick comedy like the ones advertised before the credits rolled (Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins and First Sunday, I’m referring to y’all).
All that said, go see it. Boost those box office numbers. Help a (false) history lesson out! It’s beautifully shot, emotionally compelling, really well acted, and… don’t y’all wanna know what Eve Batiste would’ve been like in college???
Stacia Brown is an adjunct professor in Grand Rapids. She hates irrefutable black truths.