There have been many come-from-behind, underdog stories involving kids where the main theme is usually about overcoming the odds. We see it in sports films all the time. It’s the commercial aspect that’s thrilling. People want to walk out of the theater in a good mood. Not every sports film is appealing. While sports like baseball, football, and basketball are mostly done, others like golf, track, and swimming take extreme marketing to bring in an audience. At the same time, debate is a subject that could also be considered a sports as well as an educational tool, yet to see it on the big screen and if there’s an audience for it is another matter and probably a tough sell.
After so many years of trying to get the project off the ground, with Denzel Washington’s persistence and Oprah Winfrey’s backing, ‘The Great Debaters’ is finally on the big screen and it couldn’t had come at a better time. Not only is this a feel good story, but it’s moving and inspirational for all.
Melvin B. Tolson (Washington) is a debating teacher at small, all-black Wiley College in Texas. He wants nothing further than to have his team on equal footing with whites in the American south during the 1930s, when lynch mobs and Jim Crow Laws are prevalent. Every African American student who loves debating wants to be in his class but there’s room for less than a handful of kids. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), having been on the team previously, is chosen again. Samantha Booke (a composite for Henrietta Wells and played by Jurnee Smollett) has transferred schools to be at Wiley and wants a shot of being on the team and being the first Black woman on it. 14-year old prodigy James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is chosen, which is a delight to his father, James Farmer Jr. (played by Forest Whitaker), and Henry Lowe is handpicked by Tolson to be on the team for his passion for equality, aggressiveness, as well as his quick thinking.
While Tolson relentlessly pushes his team to excel and be the best debating team in the country, he too has his strides he wants to accomplish such as help the farmers form a union without them knowing who he is. While the students are wining debates at other African American schools, the bigotry that surrounded the country at the time hits front and center when the Farmers come in contact with racists who humiliate Farmer Sr. in front of the family over a dead pig. To compound matters, when Tolson’s outside activities hits the surface and is arrested, Burgess has to bail on the team, leaving Samantha, Henry, and Farmer Jr. to go at it with one member short. When the opportunity arrives to face Harvard University in a debate, the remaining members on the team have to pull it together to for the sake of respect and equality.
Now, if you have seen the trailer, then you should know where this film is headed. It’s very predictable and clichéd, but the way the story was laid out and well executed by the performances, it leaves you speechless! Everyone rocked it. Denzel may have been the director and gave himself a plum part as Tolson (probably to help the film get financed and off the ground), but he was good. In his second directorial effort after 2002’s ‘Antwone Fisher’, Washington has found another emotion tug film that speaks to the heart. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker added his touch to the film as well, and his scene with Denzel was just as powerful as the scene that Robert De Niro and Al Pacino had in ‘Heat’. Yes, you can feel the vibe when you see two giants in a room. The heart of the story is the debaters, as we are being introduced to a new crop of actors that hopefully will become leading stars on their own. Of the four, Nate Parker was the force of the film. He’s the rebel that folks want to see. Funny enough, he struck a cord with audiences in his other ‘blacks against whites’ film ‘Pride’, but most people didn’t see that. Having grown up in TV sitcoms and with a few films under a belt, Smollett is amazing and charismatic as the only woman on the team. As each debate comes, she gains more momentum and independence as she speaks the injustice done to Blacks and women. Denzel Whitaker, who has no relation to both Forest Whitaker and Washington, but was named after him, also was just good as the others. James Farmer Jr. would eventually grow up to be a major civil rights leader as the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality
Let’s not forget that this is based on true story, although some dramatic licensing was taken for commercial reasons. Every one of these underdog racial films has at least one White prejudice character and with this film, that where’s John Heard fits in. The writing could have been better in that aspect but how else can you describe the injustice done to many in that time period without being obvious. The romantic elements could have been eliminated from the film. It only serves as a distraction from the main theme. At the end of the day, what you see is something that is emotional, educational, and uplifting.