A professor at Wiley College in Texas, Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) was a fiery soul who challenged his gifted students by forming a debate squad looking to take on all comers. Selecting a group of his brightest undergraduates (including Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, and Nate Parker), Tolson takes his squad around the country, coaching the debate newcomers to frequent victory. With racial tension boiling over, Tolson's dangerous side work as a sharecropper union organizer (and alleged communist), and the students' own conflicts of the heart and home (embodied by Forest Whitaker), the squad must place their differences aside and prepare for the ultimate test: a debate with Harvard, broadcast nationwide on the radio.
Traditionally, when a producer's name is highlighted in the marketing of a motion picture, it's typically there for vanity reasons. With "Great Debaters," one of the backers is Oprah Winfrey, and the name alone might give prospective audiences a great deal of insight about the content of this film.
This is the second movie directed by Washington ("Antwone Fisher"), but his first with a compositional personality and resolve to set a specific mood. Here, the location is Texas during the 1930s, where the levels of racial hatred and cultural change were eclipsed only by the humidity. Washington nails a stately tone from the opening moments; a collegiate atmosphere where intelligent characters, not caricatures, have gathered to learn and fight for their right to grow has citizens and students. It's an emboldening thematic rush that Washington nurtures to splendid results.
The arena of debate is the star of the show here, presenting fine young actors extravagant monologues that are pulled off with terrific enthusiasm - these talents love to act. Smollett, Whitaker, and Parker form a captivating triangle of faces and temperaments, and Washington knows how to photograph them for maximum emotion. Some of the best moments are the students and their rising trust in each other, permitting the actors time to sculpt the roles into substantial characterizations.
Washington himself is a bit of a surprise here. His performance as the authoritative Tolson is more ragged and mannered than previous efforts, in an attempt to depict the coach as a rebel and freethinker, and someone who looks to change not only his students, but the law of the land. The union busting subplot of "Great Debaters" is the least compelling in the movie, and distracts the pace of the picture at all the wrong moments. Washington's take on Tolson still contains the expected tornado of bravado, spitfire dialogue, and deafening vocal authority, but it's also tweaked in intriguing ways, including a snippet of some singing. This is the Denzel that needs to be seen onscreen more often.
Race was a challenge for the Wiley team, and it's a rut in an otherwise notable film. Channeling his experience on the icky "Remember the Titans," Washington steers "Great Debaters" into dangerously cartoonish areas, where every single Caucasian character is either a WASPy elitist or a sister-humpin' redneck. Each new scene of racial conflict deflates the film more. It's a tiring ploy to bait the audience, and for a film that's celebrating the human spirit, it's ridiculous to see the screenplay sink so low just to find conflict. "Great Debaters" is based on a true story, but I refuse to accept the artificiality of these moments, especially when the rest of the film is consumed with a complex assortment of situations.
"Great Debaters" rebounds with an emotional finale set on the Harvard stage. Washington doesn't give in to sweetened sentiment, instead guiding to the film to a gentle lump-in-your-throat finale that pays off the film well without a parade of tears and multiple orchestra swells. This might not be the most dramatically insistent film of the holiday season, but it hits all the right heartfelt notes when it counts. Oprah should be proud.