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The Great Debaters

Carpe Denzel

Denzel Washington's (Antwone Fisher) second film as director, The Great Debaters purports to tell the little-known story of how a debate team from Wiley College, a small African-American school in Texas, defeated Harvard University for the national championship in 1935. Except they didn't.

Wiley College did beat the national debating champs, except it wasn’t Harvard they beat, but the University of Southern California. The Great Debaters is nothing if not predictable and formulaic, as only an Oprah Winfrey production can be, but even predictable and formulaic can have its pleasures. Here it’s thanks to Washington's assured direction of Robert Eisele's well-structured screenplay and a first-rate cast anchored by Washington's charismatic turn in the lead role.

An English professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) also heads up the debate team. Every year, Tolson picks the four ablest students from a pool of applicants ten times as large. After much prodding and winnowing, Tolson picks Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), the only holdover from the previous year’s team, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), an eloquent off-the-cuff speaker with potential, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first and only woman to join the debate team, and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the brilliant, 14-year old son of another professor, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker).

Tolson coaxes the students through a series of debates with nearby colleges and universities, each one stronger and better prepared than the last. With the debate team undefeated, Tolson pushes for better competition that, by necessity, includes white-only schools, beginning with Oklahoma City University, but quickly moving forward to Harvard. Tolson’s push for social acceptance of the debate team extends to his secret, second life as a union organizer. Not surprisingly, Tolson’s extracurricular activities draw the attention of the racist local sheriff (John Heard) and endanger the debate team’s chances to compete against the better schools, African American or white.

Unfortunately, The Great Debaters pulls its punches, allowing the debaters to always come out on the right side of an issue. They’re never forced to argue the wrong side, e.g. against desegregation, against civil disobedience. The debate team is also allowed to argue points from personal experience and emotion (and win), as opposed to tightly structured arguments based on admittedly less exciting facts and logic. As it is, Washington and Eisele decided to play it safe where they could have compelled their characters, and by extension, audiences, to think deeply on the rationales used to justify segregation for the hundred years between the end of slavery and the civil rights era.

While The Great Debaters is undoubtedly clichéd, from the character types we’ve seen before to just about every plot element, there’s more than enough, story wise, directing wise, and acting wise, to offset the very real sense that we’ve seen The Great Debaters before. Whether it’s Washington as Tolson extolling the virtues of analytical thinking to his students while conveying his passion for literature or organizing African-American and white farmers, or the debate team discovering personal truths about themselves and 1930s-era America, or the spot-on performances by a talented cast of relative unknowns, there’s still much to enjoy when it comes to The Great Debaters.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars