Every so often it appears that two-time Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington wishes to show us that there is much more to him than that charming smile, trademark walk and the uncanny ability to make whatever dialog comes out of his mouth, in whatever Scott brothers movie he happens to be in, sound like the gospel. Six years ago Mr. Washington jumped behind the camera and into the director’s chair and proved quite adept at that part of the craft with the very entertaining ‘Antwone Fisher’. Today Mr. Washington is back in the directors chair, partly because I’m assuming Oprah asked him to do it and turning down Oprah isn’t something that happens very often, and partly because he’s a pretty good film director with the project ‘The Great Debaters’, one of those stories ‘inspired by true events’ that tells the tale of a small Black college Debate team in 1930’s Jim Crow Texas and their trials and tribulations. So has Denzel Washington suffered the sophomore jinx in his second stint as a film director? I think not.
Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, A Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen spouting literature professor at Wiley College in Marshall Texas. Each year Dr. Tolson has tryouts for the four coveted spots on his esteemed debate team and this year his team consists of the volatile but gifted Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the equally gifted but not nearly as arrogant or confidant Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). The two alternates to the team are the school’s first female debater in Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smolett) and fourteen year old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) who is also the son of the schools chancellor Dr. James Farmer Sr. (Forrest Whitaker). Our team of debaters gets off to a rousing start by simply annihilating the nearby schools with the spirited oratory of Lowe and Burgess wrapped around the impeccable research of alternates Booke and Farmer Jr. and arguments written by Tolson himself, much to the constant consternation of the combustible young Mr. Lowe.
A movie about a bunch of kids arguing isn’t much of movie now is it? So there is so much more going on in the little town of Marshall Texas such as young Farmer Jr. having a terrible crush on the very pretty and much older Samantha Booke, who is also being aggressively pursued by the hard drinking authority questioning Henry Lowe. Dr. Tolson is not only a professor of literature but also seems to be a card carrying member of the commie party and is attempting to unite the downtrodden sharecroppers, both white and Black, to form a union. Since this pre ‘Brown v The Board’ segregation and racism is as strong and as powerful an influence as ever and is looming in virtually every frame of Washington’s film, and there is also the occasional lynching to deal with as well. But the heart of the film, as the title suggest is the debaters. Though it wasn’t always smooth sailing for our team as we lose members and affairs of the heart sometimes get in the way, Tolson is able to convince the most storied educational institution in America, Harvard University, to allow his kids to historically debate, for the first time ever, with white students. How will our group of whiz kid debaters from Texas fare against the blue blood enemy on their home turf? How indeed.
may say ‘The Great Debaters’ is formulaic. Those people
wouldn’t be lying to you as the film plays out a lot
like a sports film, Washington’s own ‘Remember the
Titans’ comes to mind albeit with no touchdown to score
or three pointers to drain as the clock ticks down to
zero, but the concept still being pretty much the same.
But as formulaic and well worn though the narrative may
be, it is a formula that works quite well and as you
might imagine with Denzel Washington and Forrest
Whitaker around for the festivities, acted superbly.
With the performances of the two Academy Award winners
being a given it is how Washington handles his young
actors that gives the movie its heart, particularly the
relationship between the elder Whitaker’s Farmer Jr. in
relation to his real life son Denzel Whitaker and the
complexities between the elder man and his child who is
simply too young to understand the things his father has
to do simply so the family can survive in this era.
There are certain subtleties in the script which one
should pay close attention to, as to understand how the
young debaters are able to pick up things that they see
and hear and are able to apply it to their arguments,
which works very well.
If there are flaws in the film it is in the fact that it is indeed a bit formulaic and is also probably a bit too busy with the inclusion of the labor movement, the love triangle, Jim Crow, and the issues contained within the debates all being discussed, not to mention the various characters, their own personal issues and the relationships with their families being tossed in, with not enough time to tend to these numerous subplots. That being said you can’t question the heart of this film which does tackle a critically important issue and time in American History, and handles it deftly with skill and manages to entertain all the while. Now in his mid-fifties I suppose we can expect Denzel Washington to gradually stop saving the world from terrorist and rescuing distressed damsels and move more into the behind the scenes aspect of filmmaking, and based on his previous two efforts, I am looking forward to the results.