A strong and similarly emotionally resonant follow-up to his
2002 debut behind the camera, Antwone
Fisher, Denzel Washington’s sophomore directorial effort is a familiarly
structured but extremely effective drama. Lacking pretense and guile, The Great Debaters tells the true story
of an African-American college debate team who overcomes racial prejudice to
string together an unprecedented number of victories and eventually compete
against the all-white, reigning national champion squad at Harvard.
Set in the 1930s, The Great Debaters unfolds in rural, small town
against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. Melvin Tolson (Washington
is a passionate rhetoric instructor at
Methodist school with around 360 students. Competition for his debate team is
fierce, and a slot the previous year doesn’t guarantee selection for one of the
four coveted positions.
After holding spirited tryouts, Tolson selects a squad that
includes one returning member and three new faces. The first woman on the
debate team, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), is an aspiring lawyer. Fourteen-year-old
James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is the exceedingly well-read and mannered
only son of renowned scholar and namesake father James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker, no relation), the dean of the Wiley faculty. Older, independent-minded
Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), meanwhile, is a fiercely intelligent playboy who
hasn’t previously had to yield to authority or structure.
Tolson schools his students in the finer points of
parliamentary-style debate, but also moonlights working to unionize migrant
farmers and sharecroppers, both black and white. These actions land him in
trouble with local authorities, who are desperate to keep down the working
class, and view his actions as socialist agitation. As the Wiley squad racks up
victory after victory against other black colleges, local and regional, Tolson
begins quietly soliciting invitations for a grander stage, even as various
fissures in the team threaten to tear them apart.
Washington’s work as a director feels in all the best senses
like an extension of the moral persuasiveness he has an actor — the ability to
convey gravitas or righteousness in affecting shorthand, but also the rationale
that motivates someone who commits bad acts, as in Training Day or American Gangster. Here virtue and uprightness are on the side of Tolson and his
the right narrative levers with expert pressure and aplomb.
Writer Robert Eisele, a distinguished television scribe with
a long list of award-winning credits, crafts an engaging work with crisp
characterizations, and the movie has a nicely parallel real world application
of Tolson’s principles through his (secret, at first) advocacy work for migrant
farmhands. The script doesn’t shy away from the harsh racial realities of the
time period, but neither does it paint all of its characters in solely broad
strokes — either virtuous or despicable. A brutally corrupt and likely racist
sheriff succumbs to pragmatism, while Nate does things that hurt Samantha.
screenplay too often gives the Wiley team the benefit of the more naturally persuasive
side of an argument in the debate sequence, a gambit that comes to feel like a
bit of a copout.
The solid performances, though — especially from the film’s
young men — hold one’s attention and certainly help mitigate this hitch. While
Smollett too often slips into a highly affected drawl, 17-year-old Denzel
Whitaker is a highly sympathetic figure, carrying himself with the wry smile of
an ever-curious adolescent. Slightly older, meanwhile, Parker (previously seen
in Pride) has brooding charisma and a
killer matinee smile, but a real emotional range as well; despite several
charged or emotional sequences, he saves natural tears for an interesting
scene, and it serves the movie wonderfully.
strong supporting turns as authoritarian types bent on instilling discipline,
confidence and inspiration in a new generation. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here. (The Weinstein Company, PG-13, 125 minutes)