Inspired by the life of poet and teacher Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), The Great Debaters is about a debate team at the small, all-black Wiley College in 1930s Texas. Coached by tough but independent-minded Tolson, the debaters must fight the racism inherent everyday in the Jim Crow South to make a name for themselves.
On paper, The Great Debaters sounds like an amalgam of familiar film tropes – debate team competitions, an inspiring teacher, and pre-1960s southern bigotry. And indeed, the movie has some formulaic components to it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is well done, compelling, and enjoyable. In fact, I think it the very combination of these elements—as well as a well-crafted script (by Robert Eisele)—that is what elevates the movie.
Washington directed as well as starred, and it is clear he has no trouble wearing both hats at once. The character of Tolson might not be quite as warm and fuzzy as the Dead Poets Society-type teacher we all fantasize about, but just because his love was tough doesn’t make it any less love. Aside from Forest Whitaker’s supporting turn as the strict town preacher (played masterfully, of course), Washington cast almost all fresh faces in his movie. The team’s stars are played by Nate Parker (Pride), Jurnee Smollett (Roll Bounce) and Denzel Whitaker (Training Day), and yet they all turn in journeyman performances to match their impressive veteran costars.
In the end, the thing is the stakes for these debaters really are higher—and that makes the movie really work. Oppression is something we can all respond to, and the oppression and racism in the segregated south is a particularly dramatic and emotional example. And as a result, you invest in the story of the debaters more, because what they are fighting for is so much more than a trophy.