Review: ‘The Great Debaters’

Stirring, likable and unashamedly formulaic, "The Great Debaters" is a fictionalized account of a true story. In the early 1930s, in the Jim Crow South, a small, all-black school in Marshall, Texas, called Wiley College produced a debate team of such skill and renown, they were invited to compete against the white-college champions, an unprecedented event in its day.

The movie, directed by Denzel Washington and written by Robert Eisele (from a story by Eisele and Jeffrey Porro), unfolds in 1935. Washington plays the team's coach, Melvin B. Tolson (in later life an acclaimed poet), a brilliant and stern taskmaster who hides from his students his risky, clandestine sideline occupation as a union organizer. He picks four kids for his team: the youngest, James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is the same James Farmer who would become a pioneer of the civil-rights movement in the '50s and '60s. The other three are fictional composites: the handsome, rebellious Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); the lovely Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett), an aspiring lawyer, and the more conservative Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), who drops out when Tolson's lefty politics—the movie is as coy as Tolson himself about whether he was actually a communist or socialist—threaten to get them all in hot water in the racist town.

As you would expect from a movie from Oprah Winfrey's production company, Harpo Films, "The Great Debaters" is a story of self-actualization, self-reliance and the triumph of the underdog. From the outset, its destination is as inevitable as the rising chords in James Newton Howard and Peter Golub's by-the-numbers score. But if Eisele's screenplay relies too heavily on tried-and-true Hollywood plotting, the wonderful cast does its best to make it feel fresh, finding subtleties and grace notes in roles that could have been clich?s. Smollett's quietly passionate Samantha—adored both by the brainy but unreliable Henry and the devoted but underage James—never has to raise her voice to keep you riveted. And when she does, passionately arguing for integrated colleges in the team's first matchup with a white school, she's rousing. Parker, who underplays expertly, is a movie star in the making, and 17-year-old Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker, who plays his erudite, authoritarian theologian father, James Farmer Sr.) more than holds his own with the grown-ups. Playful and volatile, Washington seems to be enjoying himself more than usual as Tolson. When he and Forest Whitaker bicker over politics at a reception, the movie's temperature rises 20 degrees and you laugh out loud, so delicious is their competitive alpha-male chemistry.

This is Washington's second directorial effort ("Antwone Fisher" was the first), and it feels smoother and more confident. Once again, he uses the superb cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. It's not surprising he's an expert director of actors. But I wish his movie took more risks and offered more surprises. All the debate topics have been chosen to advance the movie's social themes: at the climactic event at Harvard's Sanders Hall, Wiley argues the affirmative side of the question of civil disobedience, and their arguments are heartfelt and personal. The fact that Wiley never debated Harvard (it was the University of Southern California) doesn't bother me. But wouldn't it have been more fascinating if, just once, they had to argue, as all debate teams must, against their own beliefs? That would have really tested these amazing kids' mettle—and the movie's too.