The Great Debaters (8/10)

Towards the end of this movie, a moment occurs where our three main protagonists must deal with an unexpected turn of events, and are at a loss at what to do until a kindly old butler helps them with words of wisdom. He’s not played by Morgan Freeman, and this is about the only time the film breaks out of convention, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Denzel Washington directs this based-on-a-true-story historical drama, which is an excellent example of the genre.

Set in the mid 1930’s, at a height of racial inequality and prejudice, Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College and head of the debate team. As the new season begins he selects several students to be part of his team, including James Farmer, Henry Lowe, Samantha Booke, and Hamilton Burgess. The team embarks on a winning debate streak, plagued by all the racial problems that were prevalent at that time.

The story is nothing spectacular, except in the way it hits every beat of the genre effortlessly – the underdog sports team (“Debate is a blood sport,” Tolson tells his students severely) who comes out ahead and surprises everybody. I’m convinced, though, that this is simply inherent to the genre and not a weakness of whatever film is emulating it. As easy as this genre may be to copy, what is difficult is doing it well, and the Great Debaters succeeds in this area with flying colors, thanks in part to the excellent cast.

Denzel Washington is nobody but Melvin Tolson when he’s onscreen, bringing his reliably charismatic persona to the character. Forest Whitaker as James Farmer Sr. is wonderfully intimidating. The kids who make up the debate team, though, are perhaps more impressive than all of them. Nate Parker as Henry Lowe is the most one-dimensional, but that’s because his character calls for it. Jurnee Smollett brings great leading-lady oomph to Samantha Booke, and the most fun to watch is Denzel Whitaker as the son of Farmer Sr. whose character is by far the most interesting.

The film carries its many elements remarkably well. The racial tension is woven brilliantly into the debates storyline, and the debates themselves are fairly exciting to watch, even if they are unfortunately few and far between. The film may be called “The Great Debaters,” but there are only four or five scenes of debating in the whole thing, though admittedly the journey of the debate team is what drives the vehicle. An underlying plot about Tolson’s involvement with sharecroppers seems at first like it’s going to be the token race issue that goes along with any movie made before 1980, but it’s actually worked fairly well into everything.

Not until a film does it exceptionally well is it ever really realized how difficult it is to do that genre correctly. Since Rocky created the underdog sports movie, we’ve had a lot of copycats, a lot of misfires, and a whole lot of crap. The Great Debaters aims to change that, and it’s refreshing to see a movie look at a time of racial inequality that doesn’t relate to Martin Luther King, Jr. Sometimes parts of it seemed a little too “Remember the Titans-y” and towards the end some storylines are put into the film that seem designed solely to cause conflict, but that’s okay. For this kind of film, the characters are surprisingly strong, the message is solid, and the story is uplifting and rather well put together. Washington is a man who knows how to make a good film, and this certainly is one.

And on no particular related note, it is hard as hell to find a poster of the Great Debaters on a google image search. Go figure.

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