During the course of a long career that ignited on the ’80s medical drama St. Elsewhere, Denzel Washington has amassed enough money and enough clout (and enough Oscars) to direct more than just two films which, after the release of The Great Debaters, constitute the whole of his directorial output. But considering the projects he’s chosen thus far, Washington seems content to only direct when the subject matter concerns young African-American protagonists realizing their promise. Antwone Fisher, his very nice 2002 directing debut about a navy seaman overcoming his troubled past, was limited in scope and style. But it proved Washington could direct a movie and, befitting his day job, prioritize character and performance.
The Great Debaters is a modest step forward for Washington the Director. He maintains his sharp eye for casting and steering focused performances. And he’s smartly chosen a true-life subject, the all-black Wiley College debate team from 1935, that strikes the same chords you’d see in any inspirational sports movie (including Washington’s own Remember the Titans ), right down to The Big Game, a fictitious rendering of Wiley’s tonsorial takedown of Harvard’s all-white debate squad.
In casting himself as debate team coach Melvin B. Tolson, the commanding Washington returns to the schematically heroic roles he preferred before dipping into the villain well in Training Day (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar) and American Gangster. Although the real Tolson later became one of the 20th century’s great African-American poets, as depicted here his passion is for the lucid, well-delivered argument.
And in the Jim Crow South circa 1935, there was plenty to argue about. So as Tolson’s East Texas squad amasses an undefeated record against various all-white institutions, the film relies on debate topics strategically chosen to highlight the era’s inequities. Arguing in favor of concepts no modern audience would dispute is Tolson’s teenage dream team of verbal jousters: intelligent and rebellious Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the team’s first female member, and 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who suffers the imposing, near titanic presence of his scholar father James Sr. (Forest Whitaker, no relation to Denzel Whitaker). Tolson runs the team through drills and teaches them the formal rules of oral engagement, including the use of reasoned, sustained attacks like the ones that help Tolson in his clandestine role as organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
While hardly fatal, it all becomes a bit much for the movie to satisfactorily cover. The screenplay, written by Robert Eisele and brought to life by Washington’s confident and convincing young actors, can’t service everything effectively, especially the tantalizing but underrealized relationship between James Jr. and his father. But Washington keeps things humming while revealing, in sometimes rousing style, a sadly forgotten chapter in African-American achievement.
Although more power to it, a movie about people who succeed by using big words is fairly suicidal. So its fallback position of emotional button-pushing, like when James Sr. accidentally runs over a pig owned by a racist farmer, is justifiable and effective, even if it keeps the film from completely breaking free from genre constraints.
The Great Debaters is produced by Harpo Films, the cinematic extension of the Oprah Winfrey empire, so it’s no surprise the movie is slathered in violin-accompanied inspiration. But until the mechanical climax, which throws up its hands and surrenders to the story’s basest instincts, the familiar structure cedes itself to the joy of hearing people speak fervently and intelligently, a too-rare virtue that also enlivens the otherwise problematic Charlie Wilson’s War.
Still, Washington has now directed two good films, so he may want to consider avoiding projects that hew so close to formula, no matter how high he elevates the material. The Great Debaters is passionate in a professional way, a very fine movie that should have challenged its audience as much as it challenged its characters.
Cast: Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: Robert Eisele
Producers: Todd Black, Kate Forte, Oprah Winfrey and Joe Roth
Rating: PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality
Running time: 127 min.
Release date: December 25, 2007