Dir: Denzel Washington. US. 2007. 125 minutes.
A strong and similarly emotionally resonant follow-up to his 2002 debut behind the camera, Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington's second directorial effort is a familiarly structured but extremely effective drama. Lacking pretense and guile, The Great Debaters tells the true story of an African-American college debate team who overcomes racial prejudice to string together an unprecedented number of victories and eventually compete against the all-white, reigning national champion squad at Harvard.
Released in the same holiday frame five years ago, Antwone Fisher grossed over $21 million domestically, but never expanded beyond just over 1,000 theaters. The Great Debaters will already open wider than that on Christmas Day, and should additionally receive a bump in profile from a Best Drama Golden Globe nomination for the film, as well as Washington's simultaneous acting nomination for American Gangster. Having television magnate Oprah Winfrey on board as a producing partner (she touted the film on a recent show) will certainly help the movie's prospects amongst affluent suburban filmgoers, and the movie's setting and subject matter could well penetrate and most deeply resonate with more rural audiences.
Given these indicators, the skill with which it tugs at heartstrings, the possibility of other awards nominations and particularly the movie's mainstream narrative accessibility when compared to other awards contenders like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, all signs point to a successful holiday run deep into the awards season.
Internationally, African-American themed films have a reputation of being a tougher sell (Antwone Fisher pulled in just over $2 million internationally), and there's no doubt that that will continue to be true here. Playing up Washington's central on-screen role more than the actual story will certainly help, though, as the aforementioned Gangster has been well received and both Dejà Vu and Inside Man were each recently bigger hits abroad than Stateside. Long-term home video prospects for the movie are robust.
Set in the 1930s, The Great Debaters unfolds in rural, small town Texas, against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. Melvin Tolson (Washington) is a passionate rhetoric instructor at Wiley College, an African-American Methodist school with around 360 students. Competition for his debate team is fierce, and a slot the previous year doesn't guarantee selection for one of the four coveted positions.
After holding spirited tryouts, Tolson selects a squad that includes one returning member and three new faces. The first woman on the debate team, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), is an aspiring lawyer. Fourteen-year-old James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) is the exceedingly well-read and mannered only son of renowned scholar and namesake father James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker, no relation), the dean of the Wiley faculty. Older, independent-minded Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), meanwhile, is a fiercely intelligent playboy who hasn't previously had to yield to authority or structure.
Tolson schools his students in the finer points of parliamentary-style debate, but also moonlights working to unionize migrant farmers and sharecroppers, both black and white. These actions land him in trouble with local authorities, who are desperate to keep down the working class, and view his actions as socialist agitation. As the Wiley squad racks up victory after victory against other black colleges, local and regional, Tolson begins quietly soliciting invitations for a grander stage, even as various fissures in the team threaten to tear them apart.
Washington's work as a director feels in all the best senses like an extension of the moral persuasiveness he has an actor - the ability to convey gravitas or righteousness in affecting shorthand, but also the rationale that motivates someone who commits bad acts, as in Training Day or American Gangster. Here virtue and uprightness are on the side of Tolson and his pupils, and Washington pushes all the right narrative levers with expert pressure and aplomb.
Writer Robert Eisele, a distinguished television scribe with a long list of award-winning credits, crafts an engaging work with crisp characterizations, and the movie has a nicely parallel real world application of Tolson's principles through his advocacy work for migrant farmhands (secret, at first). The script doesn't shy away from the harsh racial realities of the time period, but neither does it paint all of its characters in solely broad strokes - either virtuous or despicable. A brutally corrupt and likely racist sheriff succumbs to pragmatism, while Nate does things that hurt Samantha.
If there's an easily identifiable problem, it's that the screenplay too often gives the Wiley team the benefit of the more naturally persuasive side of an argument in the debate sequence, a gambit that comes to feel like a bit of a copout.
The solid performances, though - especially from the film's young men - hold one's attention and certainly help mitigate this hitch. While Smollett too often slips into a highly affected drawl, 17-year-old Denzel Whitaker is a highly sympathetic figure, carrying himself with the wry smile of an ever-curious adolescent. Slightly older, meanwhile, Parker (previously seen in Pride) has brooding charisma and a killer matinee smile, but a real emotional range as well. Despite several charged or emotional sequences, he saves natural tears for an interesting scene, and it serves the movie wonderfully.
Washington and the elder Whitaker, meanwhile, each deliver strong supporting turns as authoritarian types bent on instilling discipline, confidence and inspiration in a new generation.
Tech credits are equally dependable, and serving of the story. Reuniting with Washington from Antwone Fisher, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (The Brave One, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) captures dusty, Depression Era Texas with dusty efficiency courtesy of the film's Louisiana location shoot.
Several traditional spirituals, including opening tune 'My Soul is a Witness,' receive raucous performance at a tucked-away speakeasy that Henry and Tolson both favor, while James Newton Howard and Peter Golub's score points up the passages of uplift.
The Weinstein Company (US)
Harpo Films (US)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (US)
MGM/The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company
David J. Bomba
James Newton Howard
John R. Jenson