Plot: This is the true story of controversial professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) and his attempt to take the newly formed African-American Wiley College Texas debate team to elite status. Through their struggles, they are invited to battle the national champions, Harvard.
Who’s it for: Anyone needing or wanting further education on what life was life, especially in the South, during the 1930s. Plus, when Washington joins with Forest Whitaker in a film, it’s bound to draw an audience.
Expectations: Washington can act, and he’s directing his second film here (his first being 2002’s “Antoine Fisher”). Plus, I was very curious to see how debate was structured in the 1930s.
Denzel Washington as Melvin Tolson: For Washington, this is a controlled performance, much more subtle than “American Gangster.” He’s not always the center of attention. Unfortunately, Melvin’s life as a communist is constantly in the shadows, but never fully brought to light. And the actually coaching of debate is rarely shown.
Forest Whitaker as James Farmer: The head of Wiley College, James must deal with adversity on a different level and the advice he gives to his son such as, “Do what we have to do, to do what we want to,” is powerful. Of course, I just like everyone, would have liked to see more back and forth between Melvin and James.
Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr.: Yes, you read the name correctly, and no he’s not related to Forest Whitaker. Here he plays James’ son and does it with a fantastic nervousness and wonder. James Jr. is desperate for a chance, being the youngest member on the debate team, and he finally has his moment to shine in the end.
Nate Parker/Jurnee Smollet as Henry/Samantha: The romance between these two debaters never feels authentic, and as soon as it starts you know it will lead to disappointment. That is really their only flaw, though as Smollet has her moment on the debate floor and Parker captures a performance very similar to a young Denzel.
Talking: There are important lessons throughout the film on the social injustices that African Americans faced. The debates seemed too staged though, the audience is easily on the side of desegregation, and the Wiley debate team always seemed to be on the right side of an issue, at least from our society’s vantage point.
Sights and sounds: The landscape and costumes created are very believable and the two most powerful moments come at the hands of severe racism. James accidentally running over the livestock of a white man, and a lynching late into the night will sit with the audience well after the film is over.
“The Great Debaters” captures an important step in American history. One I didn’t know beforehand. And with Denzel Washington directing, starring and bringing Forest Whitaker along, I thought “great” would be possible. Showcasing the history is done with care and purpose, but I wanted more. I wanted more time between Washington and Forest Whitaker. I wanted more training of the debate team, and at the center of the film, I wanted more debate. The three young debaters (Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollet) are all given their moment to shine, but I felt like I was only given the highlight reel with their debates. It’s odd to ask for a film to be longer, especially when it’s two hours, but that’s what I needed to be fully absorbed in this historical story.
Overall Grade: 7