The Great Debaters

Debate as a form of civil disobedience -- 3 stars

Directed by Denzel Washington. December 2007, USA. Rated PG-13: 126 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 12/31/2007)

If Oprah Winfrey produces a movie starring Denzel Washington as a coach, you can bet that the film will tell a touching story of a downtrodden underdog’s struggle for success in the face of towering odds. As long as you work hard and keep your eyes on the prize, you can achieve anything — or so says the Disney-movie logic of inspirational cinema.

And yet, even though The Great Debaters fits this expected mold, it still rings with poignance and meaning. The Great Debaters follows the semi-true-to-life sequence of triumphs and defeats of a debate team from a small African-American college in Texas. Based on their breadth of historical knowledge and argumentative prowess, Melvin Tolson (Washington) selects two debaters and two alternates for the 1935 Wiley College team. In the process of traveling across the country and competing first with other black colleges, such as Howard, then against white universities, such as Harvard, the students learn to channel their frustration with racism through the civil means of structured debate instead of through violence.

The film’s two Denzels — Washington and Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker, his onscreen father by coincidence) — deserve praise for their performances. Although he reprises his role as a disciplinarian coach, Melvin Tolson’s unkempt appearance and radical leftist politics mark a change from the straight-laced Coach Boone in Remember the Titans. Tolson’s complexity reinvents Washington as an actor, adding truth and dimension to his typecast role. Denzel Whitaker’s realistic portrayal of James Farmer Jr. shows promise for a great acting career ahead. His face captures the raw emotion of every scene. On command, he can glow with hope, droop in disappointment, fume with anger, and bubble with laughter.

Despite its occasional cliché moments, The Great Debaters earns the right for even Roger Ebert to declare it “one of the year’s best films.”