One could hardly argue against the proposition that Denzel Washington’s second directorial effort is formulaic and manipulative. And it’s undeniable that though based on actual events, “The Great Debaters” takes substantial liberties with the historical record. But though it’s highly calculating and predictable, and strays pretty far from documentary status, it’s still a remarkably entertaining example of the underdog-wins-against-the-odds genre, not least because unlike Washington’s last racially-conscious crowd-pleaser along similar lines—“Remember The Titans” (2000)—it centers on a more cerebral activity than sport. Debate, as it turns out, is a lot more rewarding than football, at least within this cinematic context.
But there’s another major reason that the film, very loosely based on the triumphs that the debate team from tiny Wiley College, an all-black establishment in East Texas, enjoyed in the 1930s under legendary coach Melvin Tolson, is so winning. It’s best demonstrated in a brief scene about midway into the picture, in which Washington’s Tolson is confronted during a social gathering by James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker), an intense and rigorous professor at the school and the father of one debater, who’s concerned about the coach’s radical politics. As the two men parry and thrust their way through the sequence, moving from gentility to disagreement and then back again, it makes one aware of the sheer pleasure of watching these two great actors play off one another: the sequence is as beautifully executed as an Astaire-Rogers dance routine, and just as exhilarating. The two men don’t share much screen time in the film, but what they do is choice. And they’re splendid elsewhere, too. Throughout Washington shows the sort of charismatic energy he hasn’t exhibited since “Training Day” (though he’s far more good-natured here), and Whitaker creates a powerful portrait of a deeply principled man struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of racial oppression.
But “The Great Debaters” really isn’t about Tolson and the elder Farmer. As the title suggests, its real focus is on the student members of Tolson’s team—Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the brilliant rebel; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the girl trying to break the gender barrier as well as the racial one; and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the boy determined to make his father proud and to get Samantha to notice him as more than a classmate—though it’s all too obvious that she’s attracted to Lowe. These are the kids who—along with Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), as the fourth member of the squad who eventually drops out because of Tolson’s leftist leanings—respond to the challenge of the teacher’s motivational-speaker approach and not only defeat squads from much larger, better-known black colleges but eventually break the color barrier to win against segregated white schools and eventually receive an invitation to square off with against the team from none other than Harvard, at Cambridge no less, in a match that earns a nationwide radio broadcast. And the subject is—the propriety of civil disobedience! (What side do you suppose Wiley takes?)
Okay, it’s obvious that “The Great Debaters” is pushing every button within reach of screenwriter Robert Eisele. The racial angle, of course, is the paramount one—and it’s played out with obviousness in the debating scenes (which, to be honest, involve speechifying and applause that are the equivalent of tub-thumping), but also with great power in one scene in which Whitaker’s Farmer must allow himself to be shaken down by a couple of menacing crackers within view of his family, and another in which Tolson and his three charges accidentally come up against a lynch mob on a backwoods road. The class-division subplot in which Tolson gets into trouble for trying to organize sharecroppers against entrenched economic interests is less fleshed out and so less affecting, though it does act as the excuse for another joint moment between Washington and Whitaker that can’t help but encourage cheers (especially since it means proper comeuppance for John Heard’s local sheriff, who’s both racist and in the pocket of the powerful.) And the romantic triangle involving ladies’ man Lowe, pretty Booke and the infatuated younger Farmer seems almost an afterthought.
It’s also possible to fret over the fictionalized elements added to the actual events. Wiley’s ascent wasn’t the one-year wonder shown here, and by all accounts the team never debated Harvard in 1935. (The latter episode also introduces—but shrugs off—what seems to have been a real issue at the time: that Tolson in effect wrote the team’s presentations, turning the students more into actors than arguers. And it does so in favor of a sudden “twist” in the contest that’s perhaps the most incredible such turn since the jury-switching in Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables.”) The style of the debates themselves also seems off, presenting them more as stump speeches than the rhetorical exercises and assemblages of evidence they should be. Certainly the long, pregnant pauses at the beginning of the team’s rebuttals are unconvincing.) And the characters of Lowe and Booke are actually composites.
But in the end the effect of the cliches and melodramatic touches pales in the face of the picture’s formidable virtues, not least Washington’s invigorating portrayal of the fast-talking, sharp-tongued, utterly committed Tolson and Whitaker’s beautifully contrasting turn as a brilliant man compelled to defer to those obviously his inferiors in mind and soul and to deal with a son who will have to make his way in a changing world. Youngsters Parker, Smollett and Whitaker can’t match them, but the fact that they hold their own in scenes with the two men is impressive enough. The rest of the supporting cast, with the exception of Williams and Heard, both fine, are pretty much relegated to reaction shots (even Gina Ravera and Kimberly Elise and the wives of Tolson and Farmer do little but look on resignedly); they do what’s demanded of them decently enough, but it’s just not very demanding.
Washington keeps things moving well, just as he did in his previous feel-good directorial outing “Antwone Fisher” (2002), and physically the film is solid, with good period detail in the production design (David J. Bomba), art direction (John R. Jenson), set decoration (Patrick Cassidy) and costume design (Sharen Davis), set off by the glowing widescreen cinematography of Philippe Rousselot. The music score by James Newton Howard and Peter Golub is sometimes overemphatic but generally supportive.
Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to “The Great Debaters” is that it bears comparison with Robert Mulligan’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It can’t match that 1962 classic—the passage of nearly half a century inevitably lessens the impact of the message—but like that film it transcends the obvious manipulation to deal in a dramatically satisfying way with the subjects of intolerance, maturation, and the positive influence of principled and dedicated mentors.