An optimistic movie set during the Great Depression, the fact-based The Great Debaters coarsens its inspirational story and powerful history with movie devices that date to the 1930s. Director Denzel Washington uses the cliffhanging climaxes and heartwarming turnarounds that made audiences 70 years ago want to stand up and cheer. But he also inserts the explosive racial material that Old Hollywood ignored - and social volatility doesn't naturally fit into these rah-rah forms.
In the cliche-ridden script by Robert Eisele, the superb debate squad from all-black Wiley College in East Texas witnesses every indignity and injustice of the Jim Crow South in the course of one year (1935). On the road, they run into a lynching, and in town they see the Marshall, Texas, sheriff's harassment of the coach for organizing black and white tenant farmers. Then the debaters use it all to fuel their argument in favor of civil disobedience during a climactic (and fictional) duel with a champion white team at Harvard.