As director, Denzel Washington never loses focus in “The Great Debaters,” his new film produced by Oprah Winfrey. As an actor, he never attempts to steal the thunder of his cast with his presence on the screen. Judging by both, we can expect great things from Washington in future film efforts.
In this true-story-inspired film, Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a professor at the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. It's 1935, and Tolson wishes to put together a debate team. His goal is not to show educated whites the power of black intellectuals, but to empower his students to “take back and keep your righteous mind.”
Tolson focuses his attention on young James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a 14-year-old genius and son of Tolson's colleague James Sr. (Forest Whitaker, who is Denzel Whitaker's father off-screen as well), a minister and town legend who speaks seven languages. James Sr. is often too strict with James Jr., and although he is proud of his son's success, he does not want the debate team to distract him from his goals.
Under Tolson's training and encouragement, the debate team develops a successful winning streak against fellow black colleges before facing off against an all-white university. They win that debate and capture the public eye.
But Tolson's extracurricular activities capture the attention of the corrupt sheriff (John Heard) and several others. At the same time he is coaching the debate team, Tolson is attempting to organize white and black farmers to start their own union. Although he assures James Sr. that he will protect his students from his political activities, he cannot stop the sheriff and Texas Rangers when they barge into his class to investigate. Soon Tolson's political affiliation with the Communist Party brings strife, turmoil and increased scrutiny to the team, necessitating a powerful final showdown.
At its core, “Debaters” not only involves students finding their inner voices, but also men and women taking a stand against those who predestine them to fail because of their skin color. The best performance comes from Denzel Whitaker, who has little experience but great emotional drive. It is to Whitaker's credit that his character's innocence comes across not as a flaw, but rather the strength he calls upon to examine life objectively.
Sure, there are moments when the film turns a smidge sappy, but then again, Washington is equally as inexperienced as a filmmaker as his young charges are as actors. The film succeeds not just for its emotional pull but also because we can see Washington learning and growing, too.
— Mikaltodd Wilson