"The Great Debaters," starring and directed by Denzel Washington and coproduced by Oprah Winfrey, is the kind of inspirational movie you might expect to see about a college football team instead of an all-black college debate team.
Set in Wiley College in East Texas during the Depression, it presents a somewhat fictionalized account of how real-life educator Melvin Tolson (Washington) brought his hand-picked debate squad to national prominence. In the film's foregone finale, having successfully beaten a series of smaller colleges, they face off against Harvard. Actually, it was the University of Southern California they debated in 1935, but if it's a snobby point you're trying to make, ivy trumps palm trees.
One can easily imagine Sidney Poitier starring in a movie like this back in the '60s, and for the most part I don't mean that as a negative. Although Poitier was maligned by black activists who believed that films such as "To Sir With Love" were appeasement pap, the righteousness of his characters had an incendiary core.
As actor and director, Washington heightens that incendiary essence. Tolson is also a possible Communist who heads the mixed-race Southern Tenant Farmers Union at a time when lynchings, one of which we see in the film's most powerful scene, were common.
His debate team consists of Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a whiz-kid with a weakness for visiting the wrong side of the tracks; Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett), who aspires to be the state's first black female lawyer; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), whose parents cause him to back out because of Tolson's politics; and 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr., who eventually became a civil rights leader and whose father, played with suitable gravitas by Forest Whitaker, was the first African-American in Texas to achieve a doctorate. The name of the actor playing James Jr. is Denzel Whitaker – what a happy burden! – and he's unrelated to either Washington or Whitaker.
Tolson's political ideas are never really integrated into the intellectual substance of the story and the debate subjects – such as the climactic one about civil disobedience (Wiley) versus the rule of law (Harvard) – is too patly instructional. As others have pointed out, it would be have been more exciting if the Wiley squad had just once in this film taken up positions they personally abhorred.
But despite all these faults, "The Great Debaters" succeeds in bringing a lump to the throat without, as is de rigueur these days, insulting our intelligence. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.