The Great Debaters

Director: Denzel Washington

For his directorial follow-up to the inspiring true story Antwone Fisher, two-time Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington secured the rights to yet another uplifting true saga that sees the helmer returning to Dead Poet’s Society territory for this period film about a group of underdogs who band together in the 1935 Jim Crow South at their Marshall, Texas institution Wiley College to form a debate team under the leadership of Washington’s Professor Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson who would later become a world renowned poet in his own right, earning the title of poet laureate of Liberia in 1947 (according to Roger Ebert) is the type of character that Denzel Washington plays best—earnest, charming, challenging and like the director himself, able to bring about the very best in the young talent with whom he’s surrounded himself. Rounding out the small ensemble is debater Jermaine Williams (Hamilton Burgess), the lovely Jurnee Smollett as the independent minded Samantha Booke who left her college to travel to Texas just for this opportunity and she becomes the object of affection of not only rebellious but naturally intellectual Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) but the sweet, precocious fourteen year old preacher’s son James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Young Denzel Whitaker who is of no relation to neither Denzel Washington nor Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker who plays his slightly intimidating but loving preacher father, steals nearly every scene he’s in as the na├»ve, good-natured heart of the team who serves as the glue holding the group together when violent racism of the time period along with inner conflict threaten to tear them apart.

Based on Tony Scherman’s article, screenwriter Robert Eisele took a rather questionable (and in my mind upsetting) liberty with the story in its otherwise rousing finale that has our small-town debaters traveling to Harvard to win the national championships against the legendary Crimson. Further research revealed that this never happened and the group had instead beaten USC and although writer Eisele said (as quoted by Ebert) that he wanted to emphasize just how much was at stake for the college and they wanted “the stature of Harvard… to demonstrate the heights they achieved,” I would’ve been just as impressed if they would’ve stayed truer to the facts since once this is revealed, not only was I along with other viewers disappointed but we also began to question the validity of other plot points not to mention the fact that the group didn’t even write 99% of their speeches. Despite its manipulations as some critics likewise pointed out that in the film, the group are always given the “politically correct” side of each debatable topic, New York Times writer Stephen Holden who likened the film to the socially conscious pictures of director Stanley Kramer felt that “social history airbrushed for the screen by Hollywood is preferable to none at all.” While, I hesitate to agree wholeheartedly since I felt the slightly overrated film, which was produced by Oprah Winfrey had so much going for it without the large fabrication (that would never have been tolerated in one of their brilliantly structured debates) is worth seeing just for the message and performances but felt that its inclusion in recent Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture Drama was pushing things a bit too far.