“Debate is bloodsport. Combat. But your weapons are your words.” Based on a true story, the film follows the Melvin Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in 1935, who inspired his African American students to compete at a national level in debate.
The Great Debaters is good, but not great. Denzel Washington’s second time to the director’s chair isn’t a stunning visual achievement, but captures the cultural turmoil of the times without simply focusing on racism and segregation, but also the plight of the lower class during the Depression.
Washington, screenwriter Robert Eisele, and producer Oprah take a familiar formula of underdogs battling against all odds to achieve greatness, and instead surround it with cultural and historical relevance.
Where other movies would show the team trouncing the bumbling competition or overcoming inane obstacles to earn a place in the championship, The Great Debaters diverges from the cliche in order to show the strength of the squad. The team doesn’t luck out because they believe in themselves or have some synergy of sappy callbacks like the “Mighty Ducks.”
The film shows Wiley College face formidable opponents with sound arguments and intelligent statements, which ultimately results in more significant wins and a perception that they are truly worthy of facing the best the Ivy League (white) teams have to offer.
The individual performances by each are decent and at times compelling, but in the quest to be symbolic and inspirational the film neglects the personal relationships between the members, the mentor, the family, and the community. Each of the elements are introduced, but none are carried out to any emotionally satisfying conclusion.
The debate team consists of three main members. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a do-as-he-pleases stubborn young man who is bright, but without direction. Samantha Booke (”with an E”) played by Jurnee Smollett has dreams of becoming a lawyer, mostly unheard of at the time. And James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) who wants to prove himself to his accomplished father, played by Forest Whitaker. (His name is really Denzel Whitaker. It’s not a mash-up of the two leading actors and without relation to either.)
They’re lead by Mr. Tolson, played as the same charming, powerful character we’ve seen Denzel Washington tackle time and again. But audiences never seem to tire of it, no matter what race, so he operates smoothly in his own typecasting.
It’s Tolson’s extra-curricular activities of organizing the farmer’s union that keeps things interesting when talk of research and formal debate tends to wear on the attention span.
But when the film finally climaxes, the who-cares world of debate has new meaning. If you can get past the theatrical grandstanding, it has an uplifting message reminiscent of the classic Scent of a Woman.