The Great Debaters has so much heart and soul that it will resonate with viewers long after the final credits have faded. Moreover, it exposes social injustices that still dog some corners of our globe, and while doing so manages to sidestep sticky sentimentality. At the center of this film inspired by true events is the black poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), who coached the debating team from Wiley College (Marshall, TX) to a national championship in 1935. This was a first, not just because they defeated a major university, but because a major institution agreed to debate an all-black college. In the movie Harvard substitutes for the real life USC; an unnecessary plot point by screenwriter Robert Eisele.
At the center of this smart and masterful story is pride, pride and determination and beating seemingly unsurmountable odds. From the stoic swagger of Forest Whitaker as the tight-lipped pastor James Farmer, to the relatively unknown ensemble cast, a troop of young actors who make you believe in the challenge awaiting them and their debate team, it's as exciting as any sporting event you'll witness.
And since it's based on a true story, and we already know the outcome, under Mr. Washington's deft touch his actors convincingly deliver the goods. Particularly moving is Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest or the director), who portrays 14-year-old debater James Farmer Jr. The story allows us inside his middle-class family and the day-to-day challenges in a racially charged, segregated southern society. (Farmer went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality and to be an advocate for civil rights.) Veteran actor John Heard's cracker sheriff adds a menacing touch.
The production design is flawless, capturing the 1930s in all of its Southern squalor and backwater splendor - from the automobiles to the clothing, from the buildings to the Yale debate hall. Even the soundtrack featuring juke joint performances by Alvin "Youngblood" Hart and Sharon Jones adds an authentic element to James Newton Howard's stirring score.
Moreover, while debate does not appear to be a movie subject that would be worth the budget nor audience time, let me dissuade all naysayers right here and now. Go see this movie. In fact, tell your friends to see it, too. It is educational and entertaining.
Is this movie a masterpiece? No. But it is one of the best movies of the year. And Mr. Washington deserves nominations as both director and actor. Ditto for his trio of debaters as supporting actors. Finally, I leave you with this to ponder. Might this film suggest a call to action for potential Obama voters? After all, Oprah is one of the producers. - Dusty Wright
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released three solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!