Denzel Washington returns to directing with an imperfect yet impressive drama honouring Wiley Colleges all-black debating team, which went undefeated in the Jim Crow 30s.
With echoes of Dead Poets Society, Washington plays inspirational professor Melvin Tolson, who coached the Wiley debating team starting in 1929. This was no mean feat: Wiley College is located in east Texas Klan country where lynching "coloreds was a sport and black men picked cotton for pennies under the baking sun.
In one scene, teenager James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) watches his educated father (superbly played by Forest Whittaker, no relation) be humiliated by a poor, white farmer for accidentally running over his pig. Farmer Jr. would go on to found CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and play a leading role, with Martin Luther King, in the civil rights movement.
This film chronicles the stirrings of that movement in debates centring on civil disobedience and justice. The film is electrifying in these scenes and offsets the melodramatic Hollywood love triangle that forms amongst three of the debating team-mates.
In particular, Jurnee Smollett, who plays the lovely Samantha Booke, delivers an exceptional performance. In fact, The Great Debaters is blessed with one of the best casts of 2007. Washington and Whittaker rarely share the screen together but their combined presence in the same film is overpowering. Its tempting to imagine these two men switching roles, with Washington playing the refined Farmer Sr., and Whittaker portraying fiery idealist Tolson.
The film meanders towards the end however, and has a bad habit of unnecessarily adding strings to milk moments of emotion. And though based on a true story, there are some historical inaccuracies: Wiley defeated national champs U.S.C. in 1935 in real life, not Harvard. But that doesnt matter in the end. For once, Hollywood offers audiences a film that makes them think as well as feel. (Alliance Films)