The Great Debaters

2007, Movie, PG-13, 123 mins


Polished, pokey and cloyingly formulaic, Denzel Washington's directing follow-up to ANTWONE FISHER is a Harpo — as in Oprah spelled backwards — Production all the way.

Marshall, Texas, 1935. As a new school year dawns amid the darkest days of the Jim Crow South, Wiley College professor Melvin B. Tolson (Washington) has chosen what he hopes will be the school's strongest debate team yet. Out of 45 candidates from the all-black Methodist college's 249 students, Tolson has chosen four of the most promising to compete against other schools as part of Wiley's Forensic Society: restless Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a natural-born speaker newly returned after a two-year absence; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), the son of a politically conservative father; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the team's first-ever woman member; and 14-year-old genius James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker — no relation to either of his costars), son of James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), the school's commanding professor of theology. While Tolson teaches his eager young orators all about major and minor premises and how to enunciate with corks stuck between their teeth, Samantha falls for the charismatic Henry — much to the love-struck James Jr.'s dismay. The debate season gets under way and Wiley quickly finds himself on a winning streak, debating such socially relevant — and obviously portentous — topics as the societal impact of welfare, whether or not state schools should be desegregated, and the use of civil disobedience as a moral weapon for justice. Wiley even faces off against a white college — Oklahoma State City University — and wins. But Tolson won't be satisfied until his little team that could goes up against the current national champions: Harvard University. For months, Tolson has sent one letter after another in hopes that the mighty Crimson will invite them to Cambridge, but his team's future is imperiled when he's arrested by the county sheriff (Ryan O'Neal) for participating in a very dangerous extracurricular activity. With the help of a pair of white Northern organizers, Professor Tolson has been using his own oratorical skills to try to unite the region's poor black sharecroppers and poor white farm workers into a single Southern tenant farmer's union.

Though its strongest moment involves a frighteningly real lynching on a dark Texas back road, overall the film has a just-pressed freshness that feels entirely artificial; it's a gauzy dream of black life in the rural South set to a swollen James Newton Howard soundtrack. The time devoted to Henry and Samantha's dull romance would have been better spent strengthening the characters: Tolson is little more than a glare and an unlit pipe, which Washington whips in and out of his mouth in an effort to lend weight to the light, speechifying sound bites that pass for dialogue. And like too many movies that promise the true story of under-recognized people and events, the film is only loosely based on the life of poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson, who coached Wiley College's debate team to national victory against USC, not Harvard, a more symbolically freighted bastion of WASP privilege. Such changes implicitly demean the real-life team's achievement, which richly deserves accurate representation. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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