A picture like The Great Debaters is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the family-friendly picture about a historic African-American debate team can be admired for promoting the virtues of intellect, research, and self-actualization (especially in the hostile Jim Crow South). On the other, the Hollywood accounting of this true story is unnecessarily rigged in a show of lack of faith in the audience. In real life, the "Great Debaters" met reigning champions USC in a dazzling though unofficial match; in the Oprah-produced film, the heroic team goes up against Harvard (and, in a show of uninspired screenwriting, gets to debate on the morally right side of the issue).
Setting aside these disappointments, Denzel Washington's sophomore directing effort (after Antwone Fisher) is a confident and smooth Hollywood picture with likeable performances. Washington also stars, as Melvin B. Tolson, professor and debate coach at the African-American institution of Wiley College in 1935 Texas. After selecting an elite team of four debaters (Jermaine Williams, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and Denzel Whitaker), Tolson teaches them the skills and attitudes needed to dominate in debate. Meanwhile, Tolson leads a double life trying to protect sharecroppers from strike-busting officials (Tolson was also a celebrated poet).
Washington gives a much more interesting performance here than in the unjustly hyped American Gangster. His Tolson is defined by crisp speech, a steel-trap mind, bright expression, and literally high-toned speech to complement his usual basso profundo. "I have eyes in the back of my head and ears on both sides," he warns, suffering no foolishness. Forest Whitaker, fresh from last year's Oscar win, plays Dr. James Farmer, the demanding father of 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, no relation). Emerging from the shadow of great men to achieve greatness for oneself is a key theme. Though Tolson writes the arguments for his students all year, they find themselves on their own for the climactic debate. And in real life, the junior Farmer became a prominent civil rights leader.
The elder farmer preaches, "Education is the only way out. The way out of ignorance. The way out of darkness. Into the glorious light." And for the most part, Robert Eisele's script is admirably literate. At one point, Tolson notes the racist etymology of the word "denigrate"; later, without added comment, he uses the word "blacklist" in reference to his own plight. Doing his part as director, Washington gives the picture a convincing sense of time and place, as in an endearing dance scene with mention of chaperones and dance cards.
When that nationally broadcast final debate rolls around, however, the script has lined up all its ducks in a row. The team must stand on its own merits, the underdog Farmer gets the last word, and the debate resolution is about "civil disobedience," a perfect dovetailing of the sharecroppers subplot and the civil rights boom in the kids' future. Were the film not so insistent on conventional payoffs, The Great Debaters could have been much more satisfying. As it is, it's a pleasant holiday film with a positive message.