Great Debaters, The: Denzel Washingon’s Inspirational Tale

Inspirational movies, whether based on fact or fiction, tend to be predictable and formulaic, because most of them center on success stories, delineating the path to triumph against all odds. “The Great Debaters,” which is a fictionalized account of a fact-based Depression drama, is no exception, and the fact that it’s done on such a modest scale, gives the impression that it will be a perfect fare to watch with your family on the big or small screen.

It’s still hard to tell how gifted the brilliant actor Denzel Washington is as a helmer, because like in his first film, “Antwone Fisher,” he again seems restrained and constrained by the material, perceiving his goal as servicing the story and characters, rather than shaping it artistically or imposing a personal signature on it.

Inspired by the remarkable story of Wiley College’s winning debate team of the early 1930s, “Great Debaters” is a story that needed to be told. Robert Eisele wrote the screenplay from a story by Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, based on the life and teachings of Melvin B. Tolson. By necessity, the drama compresses events and combines real-life persona into composites, but it also steers clear of any potential controversy, as for example, Tolson’s leftist political leanings.

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, it chronicles the journey of the Wiley College debate team, coached by the brilliant and passionate professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington). Tolson conveys to his students in the very first scenes that there’s nothing like the power of knowledge and the mastery of information.

To that extent, Tolson carefully chooses his team, based on his conviction that its members should be the best Wiley College has to offer. To him, they represent a new breed of African-Americans, one that carries within them the spark of a new, can-do generation. Though idealizing some situations, the filmmakers should be commended for showing roots of racial tension, anger, and efforts of change during the Depression as most American films about these issues (features and docus) are set in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nothing will stand the way of Tolson, who sets out to instill in his students personal, but also a sense of larger, collective responsibility that goes beyond their individual needs and lives. At the same time, Tolson knows that he must protect them from his own covert activities as an organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; as noted, the film is rather vague on this subject.

That said, it’s a pleasure to report that Tolson’s students do not represent a gallery of familiar types. Take Tolson’s most eager student, 14 year-old prodigy James Farmer Jr. (played by Denzel Whitaker) who must endure the pressure of the team in addition to the commanding (often intimidating) presence of his father, James Sr. Ph.D. (Forest Whitaker, no blood relation to Denzel), a renowned scholar and towering presence. James Jr. is forced to grow up quickly by witnessing the horrific acts of racial prejudice, but like all teenagers, he goes through the expected rites of passage, including first love.

Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) represents another kind of youngster, one torn between high expectations based on his great intelligence and wild temper fueled by constant search for justice that has eluded his race. Lowe’s fierce independence clashes not only with his professor, but also with his teammates. Being a member of the debate team represents his first real encounter and struggle with accountability and responsibility.

Not neglecting the other gender, the team includes Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett, the young girl of “Eve’s Bayou”), who’s Wiley College’s first female on the debate team. As such, Samantha has to deal with racial prejudice as well as the boys’ biases against her as a woman. She lives, after all, in a society where sexual equality prevails both within and without the African-American milieu.

In the course of the narrative, an initially disconnected aggregate of students emerges as a more meaningful and intimate social group, shaped by Tolson’s brilliant, rebellious, far-reaching vision. As the team experiences unprecedented success and consecutive victories, he pressures them to work even more diligently to reach the ultimate goal–a groundbreaking debate with the National Champions at Harvard.

Despite its problems, “Great Debaters” is nicely acted by Denzel Washington as Professor Tolson, Forest Whitaker, in his first role after winning an Oscar for “The Last King Of Scotland,” Kimberly Elise (who also starred in Oprah Winfrey’s film production of “Beloved”), and John Heard. The youngsters are equally good.

In capturing the era’s look, feel, and sound, technical values by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, costume designer Sharen Davis, sound mixer Willie D. Burton, production Designer David J. Bomba, and editor Hughes Winborne are modest, as befit the text.

In general, each and every element seems subservient to a film that’s utterly committed to the conviction of its message, and the question of whether there’s too much history and ideology at the expense of art and controversy might ultimately depend on our personal value system.

Credits

An MGM release of a Weinstein Co. presentation of a Harpo Films production.
Produced by Todd Black, Kate Forte, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Roth.
Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.
Co-producer, Molly Allen.
Directed by Denzel Washington.
Screenplay, Robert Eisele; story, Eisele, Jeffrey Porro, based on the article “The Great Debaters” by Tony Scherman.

Cast

Melvin B. Tolson – Denzel Washington
James Farmer Sr. – Forest Whitaker
Henry Lowe – Nate Parker
Samantha Booke – Jurnee Smollett
James Farmer Jr. – Denzel Whitaker
Hamilton Burgess – Jermaine Williams
Ruth Tolson – Gina Ravera
Sheriff Dozier – John Heard
Pearl Farmer – Kimberly Elise

Camera: Philippe Rousselot.
Editor: Hughes Winborne; co-editor, John Breinholt.
Music: James Newton Howard, Peter Golub.
Music supervisor, G. Marq Roswell.
Production designer: David J. Bomba.
Art director: John R. Jenson.
Set decorator: Patrick Cassidy.
Costume designer: Sharen Davis.
Sound: Willie D. Burton.
Sound designer: Dorian Cheah.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 127 Minutes.