Denzel Washington directs and stars in this uplifting drama based on a true story about a small East Texas all-black college in 1935 that rises to the top of the nation’s debate teams in a duel against Harvard. A poet and debating coach at Wiley College, Professor Melvin Tolson (Washington) sees debating as “a blood sport” and recruits the meanest and brightest, including troubled Henry (Nate Parker), driven Samantha (Jurnee Smollet), and the 14-year-old prodigy James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (no relation) plays Farmer’s father, the initially unsupportive president of the school. There’s tough training, romantic heat over the attentions of fiery Samantha (the first girl on the team), and some no holds-barred racism (including a witnessed lynching) before the big match-up against the Ivy League school, adding to the overall emotional force. Though feel-good historical competition movies like this have been done before, Washington serves up his effort as a lean, mean family dinner, with minimum fuss and maximum nutritional-educational value. Historical accuracy may be thrown to the wind more than once–Farmer is the only real student among the team, and the final debate was against USC, not Harvard–but the acting is uniformly superb. It’s great to watch these kids slowly incorporate Tolson’s incredible poise and intellectual rigor into their lives, and the message is as important as ever. Oprah Winfrey served as producer.
As both a director and actor, Denzel Washington shines. This certainly isn’t an epic and yet it’s still very inspiring. The movie’s true power is in its cast. Forest Whitaker isn’t on screen very long but he makes a definite impression. The young cast featuring Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker are surprisingly good. Don’t be surprised to see more work from them. “The Great Debaters” is formulaic but that doesn’t hurt the movie to badly. It takes some skill to make sure it doesn’t get too sappy or slow. Washington does a good job directing and walking that fine line necessary to keep “The Great Debaters” interesting throughout.