I admit being a sucker for a movie full of emotion. If, like The Great Debaters, it's also one based on a true story, involves racial injustice and teaches young people how to dream for the impossible, I'm definitely on board. This film had me as soon as Professor Melvin B. Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, entered the classroom in a most unusual way.
The movie takes place in Marshall, Texas, in 1935 at the all-black Wiley College. Tolson, an innovative teacher there, coaches the first African-American debate team. His unorthodox ways seem futile – but in the end produce amazing results.
Tolson staffs the debate team with an eclectic rag-tag group of debaters. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is not exactly the best student at Wiley, but what he lacks in exceptional behavior; he makes up for with bravado and a do-or-die attitude.
Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker
Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first female in the team's history, comes to Wiley hoping only to get an education and fit in. When Tolson selects her for the team, she's shy and unsure of herself in the beginning.
James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) appears the most unlikely candidate for the team. Although enrolled as a young teenager, he has the experience to do the massive research required for the debates. James' father (Forest Whitaker, no relation to Denzel Whitaker), the school's president and also a reverend, constantly gives his son the job of researching scriptures.
As the team members work hard and begin to win debates against other local colleges, their spirits are high. No story works well without conflict and The Great Debaters brings it on in the second act. Personal relations become a problem when Samantha and Nate form a couple, and James – who has had a crush on Samantha from day one – can no longer control his anger over their relationship.
It's during this scene that both Parker and Smollett excel. Smollett, mostly a television star, demonstrates big screen status. Samantha knows that Henry is a gentle man at heart, and allows him to be the real man he is when frustrated by a situation he can't control. Likewise, Parker (Pride), relatively new in the acting field, shows great promise in the way he handles the range of emotions his character goes through in The Great Debaters.
Another problem arises when Rev. Farmer learns of Tolson's secret dealings with the union to organize tenant farmers. "I'm not going to allow my son to be corrupted," the reverend hollers to Tolson when he and others are arrested.
While debating was a great pastime in 1935, racism was also rampant. The Wiley debaters encounter this full bore one night on the way to a debate when they stumble upon a lynch mob of white men hanging a man merely for being the wrong color. Nate becomes so enraged; he acts out in unexpected ways that threaten to destroy the team and all of Tolson's efforts. And the timing couldn’t be worse, for Wiley has been invited to debate Harvard as the first African-American team to receive an invitation.
The Great Debaters is an amazing story, but it's the sensational direction and cast that make the theme resonant. Washington, also a phenomenal actor, proved his ability as an astute director on Antwone Fisher (2002), another emotional story based on true events.
Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker
Washington’s Tolson overcomes many roadblocks in both his personal decisions and the journey he and his debate team take here. This acclaimed actor makes his character believable, particularity when he retorts to Farmer's outrage and says, "Jesus was a radical."
Anyone who sees this movie can't overlook the great performance by 18-year-old Denzel Whitaker (Training Day). It's ironic that he not only has the same name as his Oscar-winning co-actor (The Last King of Scotland), but also exhibits a similar string of great acting moments in the film.
"He's a brilliant young actor," said Washington. Forest Whitaker added, "You could tell from the very first reading that little Denzel is quite the remarkable kid. He's very astute, very intelligent."
While the movie dramatizes some of the real events of the Wiley debate team, it's heart-rending and brings a lump to your throat. The Great Debaters is also excitedly encouraging about education and a great family film!
Photo credits: David Lee/ The Weinstein Company