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In spite of the star power of Denzel Washington and the producing and marketing prowess of Oprah Winfrey, the much anticipated and highly touted film, The Great Debaters, failed to break the top 10 its opening weekend, mustering only $6.3 million at the box office. Since its Christmas Day opening, the film, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, had reportedly grossed only $13.5 million.
What’s so disappointing about The Great Debater’s performance thus far is the fact that it is such a remarkable film. It is definitely one of my favorites for 2007 and one of my very favorite films about the black experience ever. The film, which in addition to Washington provides incredible performances by Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, and Voltaire Sterling, celebrates the best of African Americana. It documents in entertaining yet instructive fashion historically black Wiley College’s ascension to elite status in the world of college debate in 1935. Rarely, if ever, are such empowering and enlightening aspects of the black experience ever presented for mass consumption. At a time when the value of a good education is seldom depicted in popular culture, this film shows that you can be black, smart, cool, sophisticated, and still get the girl. It celebrates black pride, black solidarity, black scholarship, and social upliftment during the Great Depression and the turbulent era of Jim Crow.
In the film, which Washington also directed, after defeating a slew of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Wiley goes on to defeat a number of white institutions, eventually winning the national championship against Harvard. Although, in real life it was actually the University of Southern California whose debate team Wiley defeated, the film captures the true, indisputable obstacles a small HBCU had to face during one of America’s darkest seasons.
Unfortunately, The Great Debater’s box office fate may have more to do with its overall subject matter than Denzel and Oprah’s entertainment muscle— not to mention Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the longtime Hollywood moguls whose company distributed the film. First of all, several period pieces focusing on the black experience have not faired well at the multiplex in recent years. Going back to 1997, John Singleton’s Rosewood earned only $13.1 million, the Winfrey-produced Beloved—based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Toni Morrison novel—made a mere $22.8 million. Even 2001’s Ali starring Will Smith was a disappointment with a $58.2 million gross given that it cost a whooping $107 million to produce. Finally, Kasi Lemmons’ 2007 Talk to Me starring Don Cheadle took in only $4.5 million. It has been suggested that black folks’ daily lives in America are already too dramatic to spend $12.00 for a movie ticket and $5.00 for popcorn to see the same on the big screen.
And while 2004’s Ray and 2006’s Dreamgirls were box office successes and could be categorized as period films, those movies are hardly apples and oranges comparisons with more serious, dramatic fare, which broach issues of race relations,