The Great Debaters

The Contenders

Release date: Dec. 25 Distributor: MGM

The second directorial outing from Denzel Washington, the Weinstein Co.’s “The Great Debaters” is approaching its Christmas release with less hype than some other kudos hopefuls but plenty to endear it to voters.

Based on a true story, the pic follows the 1935 debating team of Wiley College, a small all-black school in Texas, as it rises up to compete white colleges and ultimately gets a shot to go head-to-head with national champion Harvard. One of the eponymous debaters was 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr., who went on to co-found the Congress for Racial Equality several years later. More than a feel-good tale, then, the pic examines the birth of the Civil Rights movement.

Washington’s direction and the script, by Robert Eisele and playwright Susan-Lori Parks, are traditional and linear, without the time-jumping typical of many contemporary films. “Maybe I haven’t become so sophisticated a filmmaker yet to know how do that,” demurs Washington, but the straightforward approach keeps the focus on the remarkable events of the story and on the actors.

Films with this tone often garner attention for their acting — Washington’s Oscar-winning turn in “Glory” is one example. Washington himself is a powerful presence as the poet/activist Melvin Tolson, the debate coach. Fellow Oscar winner Forest Whitaker also puts in fine work as school dean and Farmer’s father. But it’s the young stars, Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett, who especially shine.

Period costumes by Sharen Davis and lensing by Philippe Rousselot also are standouts.

See photos, trailer and more on ‘The Great Debaters’

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