I’ve noticed an interesting difference between a late work-print version of Denzel Washington‘s The Great Debaters that I saw a few weeks ago and the release- print version that I saw last night at Harvard University. It’s a big change regarding the fate of Nate Parker‘s Henry Lowe character — the most charismatic and gifted Wiley College debater, although one with an occasional weakness for booze and women.
In the work-print version of the epilogue crawl (i.e., the what-happened-to-the- characters info that fact-based dramas often supply), it said that after graduating Lowe simply disappeared — an indication that he may have succumbed to his addictions, etc. It seemed like an interesting call since inspirational films usually pass along uplifting information, blah blah. Lowe is a composite character (i.e., not based on a specific real-life figure) so Washington was free to write any fate he chose. Saying that Lowe didn’t build upon the potential of his early life was, at the very least, against the grain and admirable for that.
But this dark-fate decision, apparently, didn’t go down with research audiences. In the final-release version, it is said that Lowe went into the ministry — an obvious hint that he turned to God and the cloth as a way of controlling his demons. A more upbeat and positive fate, yes, but an indication of a certain artistic flexibility on Washington’s part. This is a small thing I’m mentioning. The Great Debaters is still sharply written, forthright, not sappy, well-shaped. It’s “commercial” and likely to catch on. (Probably.) It’s just that conveying Lowe’s downbeat fate added an interesting counter-shade. . . .
In the workprint that I saw at one of those church-based screenings several weeks before the film came out, the quote was dated to 400 B.C. — in other words, it was credited not to the historical Isaiah, who lived in the 700s and early 600s B.C., but to the so-called Deutero-Isaiah who is thought by scholars to have composed the later chapters of that book. This is not a particularly “liberal” idea — theologically conservative evangelicals such as F.F. Bruce have subscribed to this theory — and I was particularly intrigued to see this source-critical date cited in a film by Gibson, who was often derided at the time for his “anti-intellectualism”.
However, in the final version of the film that came out in theatres and then on DVD, the date was changed — to 700 B.C. Did someone tell Gibson his film would do better business if he toed the traditionalist line? Or were there other reasons for the change? And which date does Gibson subscribe to personally? Did his opinion on this matter change between the two versions of the film? It’s a minor point, but intriguing nonetheless.