The Great Debaters

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Like "Antwone Fisher," Denzel Washington's first directorial effort, "The Great Debaters" is an earnest drama about the search for self-esteem and sense of responsibility among young black people that successfully relies on its fine actors, including Washington, to set off fireworks.

Screenwriter Robert Eisele has handed the director a juicy, all-but-forgotten story about the debate team of Wiley College, a black liberal arts institution in the Jim Crow South that won most of its debates against black and white schools in the 1930s. Coaching a team that helped propel several future civil rights leaders into the limelight was the famous black poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson.

Eisele and Washington mine this rich though heavily fictionalized material for powerful situations and themes relating to self-empowerment and the pursuit of justice that are no less relevant in today's society. The film itself smacks more of TV, not because anything has been shortchanged in production values or filmmaking brio but because the American cinema largely has abandoned worthy dramas to television in favor of thrills, action and visual effects.

Good to see that Hollywood can still stand and deliver a fine period drama. If producer Oprah Winfrey -- along with Washington and Forest Whitaker, who also stars -- stump for this Christmas Day release, the film might even find theatrical success with adult audiences from many backgrounds.

The story takes place in 1935 in Marshall, Texas, where Wiley professor Tolson (Washington) selects, trains and polishes four young debaters. The youngest, James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, who despite his name is related to neither namesake), is a historical figure, a man who blossomed into a major civil rights leader. But at 14, he struggles in the long shadow of a strict minister father, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), and with a growing sense of outrage over brutally unfair conditions faced by Southern blacks.

He also is too young to do anything about a crush he has on Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first female ever selected to debate. She in turn faces a double prejudice on account of her skin color and gender. Suave and restless Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) catches her eye, but he sometimes gets drawn to honky-tonk saloons when things go badly. A fourth debater, Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), eventually will consider quitting the team, as his parents worry about Tolson's "radical" activities. Tolson is the not-so-secret organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which the town's white sheriff (John Heard) fiercely opposes.

Personal growth and deepening relationships occur as the teacher and his charges confront opposing teams, immaturity and even a lynching they come across. The film follows the debaters all the way to a (fictional) showdown with Harvard University that serves as a climax for all the subplots and relationships. (The actual opponent was USC.)

Washington commands the screen in dapper threads, a pipe he jabs like a weapon and a make-no-excuses urgency with his young students. Whitaker (the elder) establishes the minister as a man of dignity and firmness but, perhaps because of his upbringing in the Jim Crow era, unwilling to follow up words with action.

All the young actors deliver exceptional performances. Whitaker (the younger) beautifully mixes adolescent uncertainties with a burning sense of indignity over white abuse. Parker, Smollett and Williams give highly individualistic performances in composite roles inspired by former students Eisele and co-story writer Jeffrey Porro encountered through research or personal interviews.

Tech credits are solid, with special kudos going to production designer David J. Bomba and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. James Newton Howard and Peter Golub's melodic, understated score interspersed with blues, jazz and gospel standards is a real treat.

THE GREAT DEBATERS
MGM
The Weinstein Co. presents a Harpo Films production
Credits:
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: Robert Eisele
Story by: Robert Eisele, Jeffrey Porro
Producers: Todd Black, Kate Forte, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Roth
Executive producer: David Crockett
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: David J. Bomba
Music: James Newton Howard, Peter Golub
Co-producer: Molly Allen
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Hughes Winborne
Cast:
Melvin B. Tolson: Denzel Washington
James Farmer Sr.: Forest Whitaker
Henry Lowe: Nate Parker
Samantha Booke: Jurnee Smollett
James Farmer Jr.: Denzel Whitaker
Hamilton Burgess: Jermaine Williams
Ruth Tolson: Gina Ravera
Sheriff Dozier: John Heard
Pearl Farmer: Kimberly Elise
Running time -- 130 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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