THE GREAT DEBATERS (**3/4) - Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Kimberly Elise and John Heard.
Written by Robert Eisele.
Directed by Denzel Washington.
This was an earnest, well-intentioned, engrossing story about the first debate team from the all-black Wiley College to beat the national champions Harvard. Denzel Washington directs and stars, and he does his job well on both counts.
I figured we were in for some cliches when Denzel's first scene has him standing on his desk. Oh dear, another teacher telling his students to carpe diem. But Denzel's one of our best actors, and he makes his debate professor energetic, quick-witted, sly and forgiveable for an inspiring-teacher plot points we're about to hit.
As the credits rolled, I felt entertained. It had a couple issues. The Wiley team always argued the politically correct point. For welfare. For civil disobedience. For integration. It's the 1930's, and in our 2008 eyes, they're taking the noble, head-nodding, stand-up-one-by-one-and-applaud point. it would have been more challenging to the characters if just once, they could have argued a point they disagreed with. Like real debate teams. And I would have liked it to show the actual debates longer. Each debate is staged like a highlight reel, so we don't get a good feel for what listening to two paragraphs in a row would have been like.
Stand-out of the young cast was Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Washington or Forest). Turns he was the only one of the four-person team based on a real person, despite what the movie's epilogue would leave a viewer to believe. In the real story, there was not a woman on the team and they faced USC, not Harvard. I felt the same deflation I did after learning the truth behind The Hurricane and A Beautfiul Mind. Did you really need to change so much to make it a feel-good movie?