The Great Debaters is so earnest and well-meaning that it won't even matter that you’ve seen it all before. Denzel Washington’s second directorial effort hits all the high and low notes with the classic saga of a group of underdogs inspired to greatness, beating the odds and proving themselves to the world. I can hear you yawning already, and I don’t blame you, but The Great Debaters is a based-on-a-true-story drama that actually manages to inspire.
Washington plays Mel Tolson, a poet and professor at Alabama’s historically black Wiley College. A rigidly intellectual black man in the 1930s South, Tolson feels he has something to prove, and works to build up the school debate team to the highest national standards. After a ruthlessly tough audition process—students are put on the spot and asked to name and quote major historical figures—he has his team of four. Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) has just transferred to Wiley and dreams of becoming the state’s third-ever black female lawyer. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is a devilishly handsome man about town who struggles to balance his academic ideals with his hedonistic ways. And James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is the 14-year-old son of another Wiley professor (Forest Whitaker), eager to prove his intellectual worth to his demanding father.
As the team successfully debates local schools, Tolson puts himself in increasing danger by acting as a covert labor organizer for local farmers. At the same time, James and his family, as well as the entire team later on, are periodically threatened by lynch mobs. Both stories are potent reminders of the volatile politics of the time, when a black man could be attacked for simply owning a suit and a car. It gives the movie a nice political undertone beyond the underdog story, though the politics don’t particularly pay off in the end.
Great Debaters wears its heart and its ideals on its sleeve, giving way to long scenes in which the young debaters expound on school integration, civil disobedience and other Big Issues. It feels a bit preachy at times, but mostly it’s a relief to have a movie preaching about something other than the Iraq War for once.
Each of the students goes through major life changes, of course, and the three young actors are sympathetic and engaging to watch. The younger Whitaker, no relation to his on-screen father incidentally, is nicely empathetic as a child nearing adulthood, and Smollett does well with a vintage Southern accent and a preacher-like vigor when she's debating. Parker, though, is the one to watch, exuding such charisma and natural talent that Oscar blogger Kris Tapley compared him to a young Paul Newman. Henry is by far the most interesting of the three young leads, it’s Parker's performance that sticks with you at the end.
I only learned after the movie that it had played fast and loose with the facts. Henry and Samantha are composites of several real people, and the climactic final debate was at USC, not Harvard. In a great movie these things don’t matter, but it spoils the triumph a bit to know that “based on a true story” isn’t giving you the whole truth.
The characters of The Great Debaters spend a lot of time talking about big ideas and philosophy, but in the end the movie is more about how it makes you feel. There’s no question the film is uplifting, and that some excellent talent and true passion have gone into making it. You could stand around wishing it were better, but it feels like nitpicking. The Great Debaters is a classic story told traditionally and well: Hollywood at its classiest, if most predictable.