The Great Debaters


First: Just register the laziness of that title. All right. The Inspiring True Story behind Great Debaters is the 1930’s championship streak of East Texas’s all-black Wiley College debate team, coached by poet and teacher Melvin B. Tolson. This bit of historicity is the excuse for an educational tour of the re-created Jim Crow South, where students learn life lessons amid demonstrative orchestration. Denzel Washington, declaiming Langston Hughes and professorially popping a pipe in and out of his mouth, plays Tolson with typical toothsome preening (Forest Whitaker shows up as fellow Wiley faculty member, to remind the viewer what it’s like not to be acted at). Director Denzel is an adequate handler of cinematic gush and platitude, though, and even tries out a few snaky tracking shots and a compositional nod to Manet. That’s about as surprising as things get; the film avoids potentially interesting frictions by always letting the team debate (and win) on the “correct” side of every issue—that which aligns with generally accepted modern liberal sympathies. The kids follow their party line all the way to the big game, a ridiculous, fallacy-riddled face-off against Harvard. Nobody gets to root for their teammates from a hospital bed, but I’ll bet the idea was at least floated.