The "Great" Debaters?


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.

That’s… a little more controversial than the mainstream prefers its Denzel pictures… and its Oprah ones, for that matter. Unless, of course, the somewhat uncomfortable subject matter wins Oscars.

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.


slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: and here:
  • Oprah’s pop cultural magic touch seems to extend up to the literary world (and maybe Obama?) Folks love ‘The Color Purple’ film (and I guess, they loved the musical, but that seemed a reflection of their affinity for the movie). Tracy and I saw it together and were unimpressed.

    She has a spotty record with films and TV movies. ‘Beloved’ was *not* good. ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ was maddeningly simplistic; it was reduced to a love story. the same goes for Mitch Albom’s cloying ‘One More Day,’ which got an ‘F’ as a book when it was reviewed by Entertainment Weekly —- which almost never happens.

    Maybe that, combined with her stumping for (well-meaning) mediocrities like Tyler Perry’s movies, have made people disinclined to support film projects stamped with her imprimatur.

    And also, this genre is wild tired. Akeelah Remembers The Titans On The Radio While Driving Down Glory Road! and so forth.

  • kaya

    i think most don’t want to see it because it’s about DEBATING. i mean most people don’t want to see a movie about people competing with WORDS- unless they’re rappers(?) (sorry gene and colleagues) even the title sounds like some lisa simpson shit. i only saw it because my parents wanted to go so badly. i agree that reason #4 is tiring and also another reason why it’s not popular.

  • kaya

    oh and i didn’t think it was a bad movie. no worse than anything else out there. for the most part the acting was great.

  • l.

    i was never particularly interested in seeing it to begin with. once i saw a promo spot that featured a motivational speech by denzel’s character which referenced the oft-disputed (and if i’m not mistaken proven to be fabricated) willie lynch “letter,” i gave up on ever viewing it. i think kaya’s right — movies about non-rappers battling with words aren’t terribly likely to be popular. even if the movie happens to involve denzel.

  • slb

    kaya and l.-

    y’all are right. akeelah and the bee only grossed $18,848,430 domestically (pre-DVD)–with only $6 mil of that during opening weekend. it, like, “the great debaters” was heavily promoted (who could forget all the starbucks marketing paraphernalia?). i guess the extra $3-6 mil the great debaters has brought in since opening can be attributed to denzel’s involvement. that certainly isn’t much of a bump.

    … which leads me to a second thought: if denzel is still, in fact, “acceptably black,” are his late-work involvements in telling “blacker stories” (antwone fisher, the great debaters) hurting his box office appeal? wasn’t his sex appeal what made him initially acceptable to begin with? his unwillingness to play that up now may also be taking some of the bloom off his rose….

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