THE GREAT DEBATERS (Denzel Washington). 118 minutes. Rating: NNN
Behind the camera, as in front of it, Denzel Washington exhibits an unassailable dignity that makes up for his cornball excess, and The Great Debaters, his second directorial effort after 2002’s Antwone Fisher, succeeds because it plays to his strengths.
Based on the story of a real Depression-era debate team from a small all-black Texas college that breaks down opponents and racial barriers en route to a climactic showdown with Harvard, The Great Debaters is the kind of inspirational fare that could have veered into hokiness. But in Washington’s hands, even its most sentimental moments feel well earned.He strikes the necessary tonal balance by placing the plot in its historical context. In the Jim Crow South, the debaters are always one wrong turn away from a lynch mob, a fact that tempers the joy of their repeated victories.
Washington exudes his usual eloquent righteousness as the professor who guides the debaters, and Forest Whitaker is effective but underused as a hyper-literate preacher, but the film relies heavily on the young actors who play the debaters.Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker (no relation) and Jurnee Smollett bring humour, intensity and charm to their characters, daring you to resist the film’s uplifting momentum.