Tailor-made for maximum inspirational, historical and educational impact, “The Great Debaters” shines a bright spotlight on a remarkable example of black achievement long forgotten in the sorry history of the Jim Crow South. Structured just like the many hackneyed-yet-stirring underdog-that-could sports movies produced over the years, Denzel Washington’s second bigscreen directorial outing plainly and clearly relates how the debate team from tiny, all-black Wiley College in East Texas rose during the Depression to take on all comers, concluding with the vaunted Harvard squad. Pic’s emotional appeal is significant, as is its commercial potential, especially with Washington, producer Oprah Winfrey and the Weinsteins presumably set to work overtime to promote it.
Despite the heavily fictionalized nature of Robert Eisele’s script — numerous characters are composites and no independent documentary evidence has been found that Wiley ever faced off against Harvard in 1935 — “The Great Debaters” is first and foremost a history lesson, albeit of the most accessible, formulaic and Stanley Kramer-like variety.
Very much in line with recognizable Winfrey mandates, the picture promotes literacy and articulateness, highlights the significant oral tradition in black storytelling, crams in as many factual details and statistics as time will allow, and depicts a society that, however impoverished and oppressed, valued knowledge and education. Above all, pic illustrates that the civil rights movement didn’t just spring out of nowhere in the 1960s, but was preceded by nearly a century’s worth of innumerable small, brave, mostly unknown steps.
As agenda-driven and well-scrubbed as the film may be, that’s already a lot to pack into a straightforward narrative and doesn’t even include the story’s most unexpected sidelight — the implication that the revered English teacher and intellectually incisive debate coach, the real-life Melvin B. Tolson (played by Washington), was a radical labor organizer and possible communist.
The first notable element for contempo audiences is how well-dressed, polite and well-spoken everyone onscreen is; the era’s profound deprivations notwithstanding, the constant supply of freshly cleaned clothes is impressive. Even more striking is how the rural students — who, when they debate, wear tuxedos — toss off Latin phrases and quotations from James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence with the casual insouciance of Oxford lads. Who knew?
Conducting tryouts at Wiley, pipe-smoking, sharp-tongued Tolson winnows out his prospects with the warning that “Debate is blood sport” and quickly settles on his team of four: the earnest, hard-working Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams); smart, handsome ladies’ man Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); pudgy and studious 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, quite the name in these circumstances), and, to everyone’s surprise, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the rare female debater and aspiring lawyer in a state bereft of both.
While Tolson drills his charges, the pervasive racism is dramatized by a confrontation in which James’ impeccable scholar father (Forest Whitaker) is threatened by rednecks whose pig he has accidentally run over. Incident is echoed and amplified later when Tolson and his team, driving at night on their way to a debate, witness the immediate aftermath of a lynching and barely escape the same fate themselves, an experience that subsequently fuels the climactic Harvard debate.
Tolson’s secret extracurricular activities trying to organize white and black sharecroppers introduce an intriguing dimension that isn’t developed sufficiently to pay off, particularly since the consequences are muddled. The lynching aside, the dynamics of relations between the races, as well as the abject poverty of the region and the difficulty of life in general, are superficially treated; the illiterate, unwashed masses on both sides of the color divide are largely invisible here, as is any sense of the larger community, the presence of the church in black life and that of institutionalized bigotry with teeth.
But for all the film lacks in realism and psychological depth, the sheer spirit of the enterprise sweeps the audience along, investing it wholeheartedly in what the long-shot crew is undertaking. Once they start debating, they find they have been very well prepared by Tolson.
So does their reputation grow that they are invited to go up against a white school in Oklahoma. The subject of this debate — whether blacks should be allowed to attend state universities — is purposefully selected to provide an airing of issues and attitudes controversial at the time that now appear self-evident. Dramatically, it would have proven more interesting if the Wiley team had occasionally been forced to argue against a view it would be expected to endorse — debaters, after all, must be prepared to speak to either side of a topic — but the debate scenes overall are invigorating and refreshing in the way they show students mentally engaged in the specifics and nuances, and not just the emotions, of current events, and able to articulate them within a rigorous format.
The contrast between this and the rancorous tone of present-day political discourse will not be lost on many viewers, and one suspects a covert ambition among the filmmakers is to revive the popularity of debate at schools today. When the awestruck youngsters from the Texas boonies are finally welcomed within the hallowed halls of Harvard (the climactic battle of words was actually shot at the impressive Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall), it’s as if a college squad has been invited to play the home team at Yankee Stadium.
Script touches only lightly on what the central individuals are really going through in the course of their quick but far-reaching journey, leaving the film with a collection of highly sympathetic one-dimensional characters. As a director, Washington allows his actor self room for more than a little scene-stealing — his way of wryly referring to whites as “Anglo-Saxons” is particularly disarming — and he and Forest Whitaker both step up their game in their one big scene together, a spirited argument at a polite social gathering.
But the helmer, whose 2002 directing debut, “Antwone Fisher,” took a similarly soft-edged but heartfelt approach to the possibilities of fulfilling youthful potential, is again generous with his young thesps, all of whom make a favorable impression. A tentative romance temporarily flares between Henry and Samantha, providing Parker and Smollett with a few moments unrelated to the issues at hand, and both are sure to be heard from in future. The inner life of Denzel Whitaker’s barely pubescent James Jr. is dominated by his unrequited crush on Samantha, and the lad must also contend with his father’s overly harsh strictures.
Budgetary restraints no doubt prevented a more fulsome portrait of community life, but pic looks good, with craft contributions pro all the way, and music, both original and period songs, provides a further boost.