A full review will soon follow, but Denzel Washington‘s sophomore directorial effort, The Great Debaters (The Weinstein Company, December 25) is about precisely the film that you’d expect, yet a little bit better. And there’s nothing wrong with that, actually. There’s something comforting about its classical construction, meat-and-potatoes straightforwardness and pull-strings drama. Formula is formula for a reason; it works if it’s well done, and The Great Debaters is, and thus does. Based on the true story of the trials and tribulations of a small, all-black college’s debate team in the 1930s, the movie is an audience-pleaser — solidly told, and anchored with for the most part inviting performances.
Forest Whitaker, as the college’s dean, and Washington himself, as Melvin Tolson, the group’s inspirational “oh captain, my captain,” give nice supporting turns. Jurnee Smollet’s drawl yo-yos from subdued to overly affected and grating, but Nate Parker and the young Denzel Whitaker (yes, seriously, that’s his name) are most responsible for the film’s hold of one’s attention. Parker in particular proves possessing of “it,” flat out — the smile, the charisma, the emotion… the total package. He was quite good in Pride, and reminds me of a slightly younger Taye Diggs, except even less concerned with where the camera is placed.