Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters" has that classic feel-good attitude about it, the kind that can be both uplifting and inspiring when we feel that life is getting us down. I admit that sounds a little hokey. I also admit that the story is somewhat predictable, especially as it nears the end. But the strengths of this film far outweigh the weaknesses--this is a pleasant and enjoyable story, one in which overcoming adversity is not only the overall theme, but also the literal driving force of the plot. I use the word "plot" because I have no way of knowing how accurately it interprets real life; the year 1935 saw the debate team from Marshall, Texas' all black Wiley College compete with several major, mostly white universities. Leading Wiley's team was Melvin B. Tolson, an African American English professor who stirred up controversy not only because of his race, but also because of his radical political beliefs.
In the film, Denzel Washington portrays Tolson as a motivating but firm man of principle, believing that a debate can only be won through a strict regiment of reason and logic. The beginning of the semester sees the formation of a new debate team, and out of the forty-five students who try out, only four are chosen. One is Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a young man so disillusioned by life that he drowns his sorrows in reckless behavior: he drinks; he womanizes; he gets into fights with dangerous people. He's also Tolson's mental and emotional equal--both are strong-willed and stubborn, and both are willing to match wits with each other. The second student is Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first woman to ever be on Wiley's debate team. The feelings between her and Henry are strong, if a little stormy: while she does enjoy the occasional party, she doesn't appreciate the way he deals with his pain.
The third student is James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who must have been brilliant since he was in college at age fourteen. He also has feelings for Samantha, but because she only sees him as a friend, he constantly feels rejected. It doesn't help that he's always assigned as the debate team's researcher; he'd like the chance to actually debate an opposing team. His drive to succeed academically was most likely brought on by his father (Forest Whitaker, and in case you're wondering, no, he's not Denzel Whitaker's real life father); as a professor, he believes that nothing is more important than an education. It's so important to him, in fact, that some may perceive him as unsympathetic and needlessly stern.
The fourth student is Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), who's eager to please everyone, especially Professor Tolson. I wish more about this character had been explored, because being the teacher's pet is always indicative of some deep-seeded need for attention. As it was, this character is the least developed. One thing we do learn is that his father doesn't agree with communism, which is bad since rumors have been spreading about Tolson's political beliefs; dressed as a simple farmer, he secretly meets with other farmers--both white and black--and discuss how they should form into a union, which would theoretically mean equal pay for every worker. One such meeting is interrupted by a group of white vigilantes who, as you might expect, prefer the status quo to progression. Leading this group is Dozier (John Heard), Marshall's bigoted sheriff.
The major highlights of this film are the debate scenes, all of which are effective in their simplicity. They show how the Wiley team earned its reputation as undefeated champions, and the victories are so satisfying that it's easy to overlook the routine nature of the plot. Watching the students carrying off yet another trophy, I felt joyous and triumphant inside, and isn't that exactly the way I was supposed to feel? As a director, Washington has crafted a film that isn't at all unlike some of the better sports movies--it puts the characters through a series of trying circumstances only for them to arise as one and transcend. "The Great Debaters" definitely accomplishes that goal, and accomplishes it well.
This is a good thing because some heavy-handed material is not spared on the audience. Keep in mind that this takes place in 1935 in the Jim Crow south; the film's single most disturbing scene shows a white mob surrounding a lynched black man, his dead body hanging from a tree branch and burnt beyond all recognition. Tolson and his debate team see this as they drive late at night, and in the end, they barely escape with their lives.
The film culminates with the Wiley team debating Harvard University, an event so historic that it was broadcast all over the country via radio. I guess it doesn't matter that, in real life, Wiley never debated Harvard--for this story, Harvard is symbolic of that one major obstacle to be overcome. You're just going to have to see for yourselves if Wiley wins the debate; you might have some idea given the kind of film this is, but even if this is the case, I'd still recommend this movie to you. "The Great Debaters" is good-natured and inspirational, the kind of film we all want to see from time to time. In all honesty, it was an absolute pleasure to watch something so uplifting. Let's face it: movies about winning teams--of any sport--can make you feel like a winner, as well.