It's a perfectly respectable drama, made from the Inspiring Sports Movie template but centered around a college debate team instead of a sports team. All the tropes are there: the plucky underdogs, the unlikely victories, the defeats that come as the result of intra-team squabbling, the triumphant finale, and so on.
And you know how Inspiring Sports Movies always have a lot of rousing speeches? "The Great Debaters" is about making speeches! It's not annoying or manipulative that every other scene has someone giving an impassioned discourse on a weighty social issue -- it's what they're supposed to do! Speechifying is inherent in the subject matter. That's very handy.
This is only the second time Denzel Washington has directed a film (after "Antwone Fisher"), and it clearly means a lot to him. Based on a true story, it stars Washington as Mel Tolson, a professor at all-black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1935. The evenings find him dressed like a farmhand and secretly meeting with sharecroppers to encourage them to unionize, an activity which the local authorities don't cotton to and which gets Tolson branded as a communist. But by day he is the upstanding speech professor, intent on forming the finest debate team possible.
He selects as his two main debaters Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), a hefty, self-deprecating scholar, and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a rascally ladies' man who says he came to college because "school's the only place you can read all day -- except prison." The alternates are 14-year-old whiz kid James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first female in the team's history.
James Farmer Jr. is the son of a Wiley theology professor (played by Forest Whitaker), a soft-spoken and well-educated man who finds it hard to retain his dignity in this era of whites-only bus stop benches and baldly racist police departments. Refreshingly, Farmer Sr. supports his son's endeavors and doesn't worry unreasonably about Tolson's influence on him. You expect a movie like this to have a character whose parents don't want him on the team, and I'm glad that particular cliche was discarded, even if many of its cliche brethren are here in full force.
The team does well from the outset, defeating teams at other black colleges and eventually being invited to compete at white universities. Mixed with these rousing exploits are mini-dramas about Henry and Samantha's budding romance (despite his reckless ways and fondness for alcohol) and the danger of being black in the South in the 1930s. Lynchings are still common at this point, and each of the main characters has a different way of confronting terrible reality.
I liked the movie, and I'm not just saying that because I fear Oprah's wrath (though I do). Its structure and content are not original, no, but Robert Eisele's screenplay is just sophisticated enough to be above average (the debate scenes are brimming with thoughtful speeches), and Washington's direction is smooth. The film is a little more elegant than the usual by-the-numbers Inspiring Sports Movie.
It is bolstered by some fine performances, too. Jurnee Smollett overcomes the cruelty of the misspelled non-name her parents saddled her with to light up the screen as Samantha, a woman of fiery temperament and extraordinary debate skills. When Sam is on her game, you'll agree with every word she says, no matter what the topic. (The film does stack the deck in her favor by letting the Wiley team always take the most reasonable and popular side of each debate issue.) Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest, though he plays his son) flesh out the team's personality; Jermaine Williams, the fourth team member, falls by the wayside halfway through.
Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, both in the elite group of black Oscar-winners, have only a few scenes together, and that's a shame. But individually, they do what they're best known for: charismatic, engrossing performances that feel honest and uncontrived. They make it look easy. If "The Great Debaters" isn't the best in its class, as least it has some of the classiest people behind it.