"The Great Debaters" is like "Coach Carter," "Pride," "Akeelah and the Bee," and any other overlooked "young, gifted, and black" competition film. The difference is you'll probably see this one. Oprah Winfrey produced it. Denzel Washington directed it. Forest Whitaker acts in it. Oh, and it happens to be pretty good. The movie tells the true story of the Wiley College debate team, which in 1936 traveled from Texas to Cambridge to debate Harvard -- well, true-ish. The team never came to Cambridge for a debate. They went to the University of Southern California. In any case, according to the film, the team spent most of that season undefeated, and its stars during the 35-36 season included the future Civil Rights leader James Farmer Jr., who at the time was a 14-year-old freshman.
Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the modernist poet, activist, and columnist, Wiley's speech and English professor, and the debate team's coach. The director shrewdly uses himself as audience bait. Posters for the movie have him in a suit pointing mid-lecture, and the film delivers him as a guiding Hollywood light: He's pure, inspirational Poitier. Professor Tolson extols the poetry of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Bennett. He writes the word "revolution" on his chalkboard before explaining the Harlem Renaissance to his students.
In the opening sequences, Washington quickly illustrates the movie's social-moral dichotomies, as it cuts back and forth between a jumping juke joint and a volcanic church sermon. But "The Great Debaters" is a didactic movie with a major tutorial difference. It exists in the rarified educational space between those two settings. The kids in Tolson's classroom, as well as the young lady and three young men who fill out the Wiley debate team, really want to be there. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the handsome hothead, knows where the juke joints are. James (the amazingly named Denzel Whitaker, who's related to neither star) knows where the church is - his daddy (Forest Whitaker) is a preacher. School becomes both kids' common ground.
This isn't a typical movie about outsiders who don't believe in themselves and have to be seduced into success. They know a lot and hunger to learn more. This is the pre-civil rights segregated South. If you were black and sitting in a classroom, your desk was your pew and your teacher was your preacher. Tolson might go too far in insisting he write the arguments for the team. But when Henry abandons script in one debate, it's obvious that he can not only think for himself, he can do it electrically.
The movie's first hour is patchy. It tries to get too much done with the dramatic cliches it has. There's a lot of business between young James and his steeply educated father. Some of the scenes are good. Some of them, like one involving the nasty rednecks whose hog the Farmers hit with their car (Kimberly Elise plays Mrs. Farmer), are labored attempts to articulate how racism restructures the power dynamic among the classes.
Robert Eisele's script takes the long way to get to the heart of the movie's matter, which is the simmering bond among the debaters. When one kid drops out because of the rumors of communism swirling around Tolson (by night the professor dons farmer's drag to negotiate unionization between white and black sharecroppers), the quartet reconfigures into a fascinating triangle. Intellectually, it's equilateral. Romantically, it's askew. Henry and James are smitten with Samantha (Jurnee Smollett), the fieriest orator on the team. She chooses Henry, and James, who serves as both the team's alternate and researcher, braces himself for real heartbreak. (He's a self-professed fan of D.H. Lawrence, so it's not as though he doesn't know what he's missing.) But Washington does give James a daydream where he and Samantha bounce and swing with each other to a big band at the homecoming dance. This is an ecstatic piece of musical moviemaking.
The other movie Washington directed, "Antwone Fisher," about a psychologically traumatized naval cadet, introduced the world to Derek Luke. This movie showcases Parker, young Whitaker, and, best of all, Smollett, who was the Eve in Kasi Lemmons's "Eve's Bayou." The girl in that movie has become a fearsome woman who commands your attention with the uncanny wisdom that seems to come from a place she doesn't quite understand.
"Antwone Fisher" was more unassumingly powerful than this new movie, which is overloaded. I didn't mention the lynching scene, the admittedly delightful sight of Forest Whitaker debating Denzel Washington, some last-minute romantic melodrama, and a real slap that your cheek will feel for days. The movie wants to do a lot and say even more. But what you truly remember are the awe and surprise on the debaters' faces when they win a debate or the expectant look they have the first time they enter a hallowed Harvard auditorium: We belong here, too. For a film about the power of speech, it's the quiet moments of rapture that say everything.