In the mid 1930’s Wiley College, a tiny Methodist school in east Texas, had a winning debate team. This film, starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington (he also directed) and Forest Whitaker is a proficient histoical drama about the team and the times with flashes of brilliance.
In this scene for example. Dr. James Farmer, the president of the college and a minister, calls Denzel, as Professor Melvin B. Tolson, coach of the debate team, on his extra-curricular activities: organizing share-cropers into a kind of union. They go at each other with intelligence in friendship and respect.
It is a believable sequence that pulls you into the characters. I think adding in the union activities as a theme made the film a little too busy but was needed to move the action along.
The film has the flavor of the sports formula film about it, David and Goliath and so forth. This is, after all, one of the most winning of formulas there are.
There is a flavor of the 1987 film “Cry Freedom” about it, too. It could be because Denzel played in it (as Steve Biko, the martyr of aparheid) and a few of the scenes took place in “shabeens”, the pubs of South African townships. These have been recreated for this film only in a U.S. south, that is, Texas, setting. It is remarkable to think, however, that in 1935 the U.S. south under Jim Crow, was South Africa under apartheid.
What I liked about the film, in addition to Whitaker’s performance (and Denzel Whitaker’s – no relation to Forest it seems), is that it has a feel of authenticity about it. Some of the characters portrayed went on to play roles in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60’s and the film shows where they came from, where they got their ideas and the impetus to do something to make a difference. The role of the churches cannot be underestimated in the Civil Rights Movement and I think The Great Debaters portrays this very well.
The Great Debaters is about education, civil rights issues, and racism; it is teaching and informing us, and I enjoyed it even though I knew how it would end from the opening scene.
I think Forest Whitaker is very good in this film.