December 27, 2007

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The Great Debaters (PG-13)
Denzel Washington directs and stars in The Great Debaters, a genuinely inspirational story about a debate team at an African-American college in the 1930s.

Mel Tolson (Washington) is the debate team coach at an African-American college in a small Texas town. He works his students hard and picks only the best — this year that means Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). Hamilton was on the team last year, Henry is a smart student who seems quick to get into trouble, James finds college life socially difficult due to his tender age (he’s still in his mid-teens) and Samantha develops a crush on Henry and is the object of James’ affections. James also must deal with the sky-high expectations of his father, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), who is a professor at the college. Despite the assorted turmoil and because of Tolson’s drill sergeant-like approach to preparing his students for debate, the team quickly finds itself racking up the victories. Tolson spreads the word on his team’s prowess and, after several wins over teams from other African-American colleges, Tolson is able to get a white college to debate his students. Of course, it has to be off college grounds — even a school liberal enough to debate Tolson’s crew isn’t liberal enough to let them on campus.

Such indignities are only part of the daily race-related inequities that the students of the college face, even in the college’s hometown, which — despite the fact that the college is the only visible means of professional business in the town, or, heck, maybe because of it — is still littered with “whites only” signs on benches and the like and has a particularly mean sheriff. We first get a good look at Sheriff Dozier (John Heard) when he and a gang of thugs break up a meeting of share croppers talking about forming a union, a meeting at which Tolson is a speaker. His membership in union-building activities puts Tolson at particular risk, not only from the white sheriff but also from his college and others, who fear association with a potential communist (a charge that Tolson never addresses).

The words “feel-good holiday movie” generally don’t conjure up thoughts of a movie featuring a rather harrowing lynching scene. But The Great Debaters is about as feel-good as it gets without crossing over onto the feel-queasy side of uplifting movies. It mixes the building blocks of your standard sports movie — compelling coach, team members with various problems, the promise of a big game (which here is a debate with Harvard University) — with solid performances and writing and some historical commentary on race and politics in the 1930s to create sort of a brainy version of Glory Road (the 2006 movie about the Texas Western College basketball team, the first team in the NCAA to have an all-black starting line-up). The scenes of racial violence, though, give some heft to all the talk about equality. The students debate integration of colleges and civil disobedience but these are not academic ideas. As the students learn when they happen upon a late-night lynching on a country road, issues of equality are issues of life and death. By the time the movie reaches its rousing climax, you’re ready to march for social justice along with the based-on-a-true-story characters. B

Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality. Directed by Denzel Washington and written by Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro, The Great Debaters is two hours and three minutes long and is distributed in wide release by MGM Distribution.