by Tony Dayoub
Inpired by a true story, The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington’s assured directorial follow-up to Antwone Fisher, is a fascinating look at a group of 1930s-era African-American college students, and how their professor, Melvin Tolson (Washington), shaped them into one of the strongest college debate teams in the U. S. while struggling to overcome the obstacles they faced in the Jim-Crow South.
Washington has successfully executed one of the first directives of a novice director, surround yourself with talented collaborators. The story is told through the eyes of young James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), a gifted 14-year-old who harbors a crush for one of his teammates. She is Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first female to make it into Wiley College’s debate team. But she has a crush of her own, the haunted Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), whose escapes into seedy juke-joints dull the rage he feels at his inability to retaliate for the era’s injustices towards blacks. The young Whitaker communicates the odd contradiction of his character, both lacking maturity in his disdain for Samantha’s attraction to their teammate, yet wise beyond his years in the way he nurtures the couple, and therefore the team, through their highs and lows. Smollett is all fiery indignation when arguing a topic at the podium, but this belies her character’s kind and sensitive nature. Parker portrays Lowe with an eerie intensity reminiscent of director Washington’s own performances. Strong supporting players, including Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), John Heard (The Pelican Brief), Kimberly Elise (Diary of a Mad Black Woman), and Gina Ravera (The Closer), round out the cast.
Not limited to his cast, Washington’s top-notch crew also help to deliver a winning motion picture. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Henry & June) captures the tangerine tones of hot Marshall, Texas without descending into the cliched, golden, nostalgia-drenched photography of other films of this type, like Dead Poets Society. All the better to contrast the optimistic world of Wiley College with the gritty harshness of the dark southern nightlife, a world replete with juke-joints, lynchings, and secretive labor union meetings. James Newton Howard and Peter Golub’s score is subtle for most of the movie, but appropriately rousing as the team heads toward prestige in the academic world.
Robert Eisele’s screenplay is smart in that its protagonists are allowed to be flawed individuals. It is only together as a team that they, and even their leader, Professor Tolson, succeed in achieving their ambitions. Great care is taken to demonstrate this as each time one of the members is not present, failure inevitably follows. The key example is midway through the film, when Lowe’s nighttime tryst with a woman he picks up, is observed by Samantha. Lowe was the first to walk out on the team to go rabble-rousing. Samantha, second, after her pride is hurt by his philandering. Farmer, preoccupied with the team’s crumbling dynamic, may be there physically, but loses focus as their upcoming debate with prestigious Howard University approaches. The lion’s share of the blame goes to Tolson, who is distracted by his attempts to organize a union for Southern sharecroppers – an extraneous subplot that ultimately leads nowhere - instead of keeping the team in line. Tolson has been oblivious to the love triangle within his own team, risking their chance to reach their ultimate goal, debating a white college.
Denzel Washington’s direction of his actors is bold, while maintaining restraint with the visuals. He does not try to impress with flashy angles until necessary. He wisely chooses to have his excellent actors carry the story. But the debates, which could easily have been the slowest parts of the film, are enlivened by Rousselot’s constantly moving camera, and the composers' judicious use of music.
The DVD has a great amount of interesting extras. If you get the single disc, you'll get deleted scenes, a documentary with the real-life debaters, and a couple of music videos. The two-disc includes all that and a couple of documentaries on the film's music, a couple of documentaries focusing on the young actors, the poetry of Melvin B. Tolson, and much more.
It is rare to find an uplifting movie that does not preach or devolve into a cliched "inspirational" tearjerker. This is an excellent one to watch, and I hope to see another of Washington's directorial efforts soon.
The Great Debaters will be available on single and two-disc standard DVD on 5/13.
Still provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.