The Great Debaters is like one of those sentimentally revved youth-sports-team crowd-pleasers. This time, though, the sport is debating, and the setting is an elite black college in Marshall, Tex., in 1935. In an inspirational true story, Denzel Washington, who also directed, plays Melvin B. Tolson, the celebrated poet and English professor who led the Wiley College debate team to victory through the Jim Crow South, then across the color line, and then on to such heights of achievement that they won their way to a match against Harvard.
Washington tends to carry himself with brisk man-of-the-world ease, so it’s refreshing to see him play an intellectual dandy. Sucking on a pipe, with wisps of gray in his hair, he gives Tolson a vaguely British cadence and a stick-up-the-back posture, and he’s not above standing on a chair to regale his class with high-minded quotes from Langston Hughes. Tolson isn’t putting on airs. He wants to convey the merriment of thought — to move his disciples out of the legacy of the slave mentality. ”Debate is blood sport!” he declares, and as he picks four students for the team (two debaters and two alternates), we sit back, eager to watch these brainy gladiators get busy.
First, however, we have to get to know them, and that’s where The Great Debaters — like Washington’s first film as a director, Antwone Fisher — is prone to chewy, bite-size lessons. A young actor named Denzel Whitaker (you read that right) plays 14-year-old James Farmer Jr., a moonfaced college prodigy who is trying, miserably, to live up to the demands of his theology-prof father — played, with complicated gravity, by Forest Whitaker (no relation). There’s a stormy standoff in which Farmer Sr. hits a hog with his car and has to placate the rednecks who owned it; the son’s disappointment in what he (naively) views as an act of racial toadying is wounding and real. The other principal actor, Nate Parker, plays the debonair debater Henry Lowe with a surly quickness that evokes the young Tom Hanks. The movie bounces from his romance with the team’s lone female member (Jurnee Smollett) to Tolson’s midnight career as a union activist, but the spectre of racism shadows all, notably when the team witnesses a lynching.
Yes, there is debating, but for much of The Great Debaters, Robert Eisele’s script treats the onstage jousts of ideas in too abbreviated and cut-and-dried a fashion. If the students were forced to feel their way through their arguments more, or to make the case for something that they (and we) didn’t agree with, we might see their minds growing, instead of just noting the impressiveness of their composure in their bow-tied uniforms. Still, when the film arrives at that Harvard contest — the big game — we finally get a full-on debate, and it’s worth the wait. The topic is civil disobedience, and as one of our heroes draws from experience to argue for the morality of lawbreaking, The Great Debaters soars with words and feeling. The next time Denzel Washington directs, that’s the place where he should start. B