Director Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters" is pure Hollywood, not without its share of storytelling cliches and golden-toned inspirational teaching moments, but you know what? The results really are inspirational.
Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele start things rather oddly, with a vexing array of activity and characters coming at us all at once: A knife fight at a juke joint; a young woman's bus trip; Washington skulking around in a sharecropper get-up, for reasons we learn later. Then we're in the classroom with Washington's Prof. Tolson and his eager charges, learning about the writers of the Harlem Renaissance ("They're changing the way Negroes in America think"). In a minute or two of screen time Tolson has convinced a highly promising on-again, off-again student played by Nate Parker, whom we see eluding an angry man's blade in the backwoods prologue, to try out for the team.
Very swiftly the prime debaters are assembled and ready to rip. The woman in the prologue, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), joins Parker's Henry Lowe and young James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the youngest member of the team and the son of Wiley College administrator James Sr. (Forest Whitaker). Ms. Booke falls in with Mr. Lowe, and the film spends some time on their sometime thing, as it follows the fortunes of the team mowing down opponents, wrestling with rhetoric and research, and contending with the realities of the Jim Crow South.
"The Great Debaters" feels very alert to the racism, especially by Hollywood biopic standards, and not in a hysterical Alan Parker "Mississippi Burning" way. A roadside lynching is eerily persuasive in its dramatic weight and detail, and earlier, a non-violent incident with a white farmer and his hog turns into a gripping lesson in prejudice, compromise and shame for James Jr. and his father. The look of this picture may be a little pristine and pretty for the Depression-era setting but we do, at least, learn something of Tolson's secret life as a farm workers organizer in ways that inform the story.
Would the film be better off without the moments where characters slowly rise to their feet and applaud someone's debating acumen? Yes. Would the film be better off without co-composer James Newton Howard's typically mundane music? Yes. Do these problems kill the film? No. It works. It knows where it's going, and the acting's excellent, never more so than in a fabulously played encounter between Oscar-winning aces Washington and Whitaker at a faculty party. The scene's not really crucial to the plot, but the way these two toy with each other, tiptoeing around the subject of Tolson's suspicious activities, it's a joy to watch. I cannot wait to see that scene again.
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