The Great Debaters Denzel Washington

The Great Debaters Denzel Washington
Thankfully, The Great Debaters isn’t nearly the hole in the screen that was Antoine Fisher, Denzel Washington’s directorial debut. By contrast, this historical drama is full enough with incident, professional enough in technique and good enough not to embarrass itself with the rest of the mediocre message movies spewed out by Hollywood every Christmas. Washington takes the role of Melvin B. Tolson, a black academic who in the ’30s led obscure Wiley College to a championship against Harvard itself. The path to that victory is a long and winding one — not only does Tolson have to deal with the squabbling of his charges but the nature of his leftist agitation makes him persona non grata amongst the white establishment of the day. The film gets full points for copping to Tolson’s political activities and not punishing him but they compensate for that by making the connection between the main debate narrative and his less sexy pursuits. And of course, Tolson is made out to be the same kind of stentorian plaster saint that’s only fit for this kind of movie. To my surprise, it was still kind of watchable, with most of the attention deflected to the students, who handle themselves quite well. But as the sense of history gets swept away in the demands of genre and conventional narrative, I just wish it was a little more cogent and a little less heart-warming. Extras include a wide array of featurettes that render the back-story in the same vaguely pompous tones as the movie, two music videos cobbled together from clips from the feature and some of Tolson’s excellent poetry. (Alliance Films)