Told with the against-all-odds mentality reserved for most underdog tales, Denzel Washington
's The Great Debaters -- inspired by a true story -- recounts how a plucky debate team from all-black Wiley College systematically defeated anyone who dared oppose them until they earned an impossible title shot against the scholars of Harvard University.
Washington, who also directs, plays Melvin Tolson, a hard-nosed instructor who, in 1935, coaches his co-ed team through racially motivated obstacles while simultaneously protecting a secret that threatens to derail his team's historic run. A self-righteous leader, Tolson fills his vessels with the knowledge that a proper education is their lone ticket to a balanced life. The school's president, played with stubborn dignity by Forest Whitaker
, echoes this credo in quiet scenes with his son, who happens to be on Tolson's team. "We do what we have to do," the educator exclaims, "so we can do what we want to do." Part of Tolson's method is to drill mantras into his debaters' skulls. The judge is God. Their opponents do not matter. And the only way they will succeed is by telling the truth. Article continues below
It's great advice, though Washington ignores it. Would it bother you to learn that the Wiley College debate team never beat Harvard? How about the fact that they never even competed against them? Wiley's biggest win in 1935 was against the University of Southern California, though Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele swap in the Ivy Leaguers for reasons that are unclear (and unnecessary). Such a revelation -- in my opinion -- cuts Debaters off at the knees, devaluing the last third of the film, where Tolson's protégés must think on their feet to prove they belong on the Cambridge stage, holding court with Harvard's top arguers. The phrase "inspired by" may buy a filmmaker creative leeway, but it's at the cost of credibility with an audience.
It's unfortunate, because the rest of Debaters can be inspirational. Washington's direction is pedestrian, but his fiery performance injects spitfire into the conventional teacher-student formula. Eisele makes sure Tolson always has a speech at the ready, and some of them are even good. Washington's passion infects his young co-stars, who are uniformly impressive. Young Denzel Whitaker
-- who, believe it nor not, is related to neither Denzel Washington nor Forest Whitaker -- stands out from Tolson's trio. He plays James Farmer Jr., the sympathetic son of the school's president and the third leg in a disproportioned love triangle that includes fellow debaters Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett
) and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker
). During the film's finest moments, the oft-broken-hearted teenager discovers the strength to persevere, learning the true power behind the right words spoken at the right time. His inspiring delivery swells from within, and that's a fact that can’t be debated.