"Great Debaters" needs a little momentum
Intense debate coach and clandestine labor organizer Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) hops up on a desk, but he doesn't want anyone to seize the day. He wants his Wiley College students to seize the power of knowledge and words.
Seattle Times staff reporter
"The Great Debaters," with Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker. Directed by Washington from a screenplay by Robert Eisele. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality. Several theaters.
Resolved: No more movies can have inspiring, self-sacrificing teachers standing on desks.
Intense debate coach and clandestine labor organizer Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) hops up on one, but he doesn't want anyone to seize the day. He wants his Wiley College students to seize the power of knowledge and words in the dangerously oppressive Jim Crow Texas of 1935. Loosely based on the real debate team that scored major victories over those of bigger, white colleges at a crucial time, Washington's second work as a director is competently crafted. But it's more of an "OK Debaters," a rote, extremely earnest Hallmarkesque event that never builds up the kind of momentum that should come naturally from the subject. (Make that Oprah's outfit, Harpo Films, which produced.)
Like a righteously fulminating black Dr. House, the brilliant Tolson chooses four students from many applicants for the new semester's debate team and then drills them mercilessly day and night. The mouthpieces: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), smart, rebellious and volatile, with a weakness for liquor; and the rather staid Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), who doesn't approve of Tolson's extracurriculars. Doing the research: beautiful Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), blazing her own trail as the first female on the debate team; and big-brained 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker — seriously, and no relation), son of an eminent and hard-to-please scholar (Forest Whitaker — ditto).
Young Farmer doesn't know how things work yet. He's out of his league with a crush on Booke, while she's easy prey for handsome Lowe. And after watching his old man knuckle under to the humiliation of a couple of rednecks who call him "boy," Junior becomes more enamored of Tolson, inadvertently swept into the coach's dangerous nighttime world organizing black and white workers at risk of their lives.
Feeling the cracker heat — led by John Heard as sheriff — close in on him gives Tolson even more reasons for his team to rack up prestigious wins. Everything's at stake, even their lives, when they flee an angry lynch mob en route to one contest. The debate team changes configuration for soapy and other reasons as they gain one victory after another, on the way to their ultimate challenge, a match with Harvard.
The real team beat the University of Southern California. Harvard must have sounded more impressive for a movie. (Also: The real Tolson went on to become a famous poet, and James Farmer Jr. became a prominent civil-rights figure who led the historic Freedom Rides. Other characters are fictional composites.) But this isn't a documentary.
Every performance is good, but Washington's is so forceful that the movie sags when he's offscreen and the students are carrying the show. There needed to be either more of him or less.
And while the film has the burnished look and gravity of a Noble Story That Needs To Be Told, ratcheting up the tension would have made it more compelling and less of a lesson. For one thing, the Wiley debaters always conveniently get to make impassioned pro-civil-rights arguments perfectly in line with modern thinking, and they're never made to argue to the contrary in a match. Also, even though it's all (sort of) documented history, the progression of victories conveys little excitement. Even if the outcome is known, the filmmakers could have torn a page from, say, "Hoosiers." After all, debate is a brutal sport.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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