Denzel Washington (2007's "American Gangster
") and Forest Whitaker (2002's "Panic Room
") headline the period drama "The Great Debaters," but, in what has to be one of the strangest casting coincidences in cinema history, a teen actor with both of their namesDenzel Whitaker (2001's "Training Day
")steals the film from them. The younger Whitaker, no relation to Forest, delivers an irresistible, star-quality performance as 14-year-old James Farmer Jr., the youngest student at Marshall, Texas' Wiley College, circa 1935. He, along with classmates Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), are three of the elite four who are chosen to represent the school's extracurricular debate team. Coached by the earnest Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), their winning sweep at neighboring schools eventually leads them to break racial barriers of the era, culminating in their match against Harvard University.
The second directing effort from Denzel Washington (following 2002's "Antwone Fisher
"), "The Great Debaters" chronicles a little-known slice of African-American history and does it with diligence and passion. While the story is one worth being told (even if some of its details have been embellished for this account), Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele have trouble rising about the formulaic screen device of a teacher inspiring his pupils to take a stand against adversity. Pretty much knowing where the narrative is going at every turn is a hindrance for the viewer, in effect sucking the tension out of the proceedings. Thus, while there are some powerful individual momentsone involving a devastating run-in with a lynch mob, another showing James Farmer Sr.'s (Forest Whitaker) forced humiliation in front of two white farmers when he accidentally hits their pig with his carthey are self-contained and at the service of a predictable greater picture that doesn't add up to much by the end.
Meanwhile, various other plot strands come in and out of focus, few of them resulting in little closure. For a time, there is a lot of concentration placed on the quasi-love triangle between James Jr., Samantha and Henry. Though younger than her, James Jr. falls for Samantha, and is heartbroken when he discovers that Samantha's interests lie with Henry. This fact, along with other later developments, puts a strain on their relationship and their ability to work as a team. When it is abruptly dropped without a payoff, it is frustrating to have spent so much time caring about it in the first place while precious minutes of the running time ticked by. Another subplot dealing with Mel's blacklisting when he is suspected of communism, this, too, signifying the debate team's threatened dismantling, is brought up and then tossed out in time for the climactic one-on-one between Wiley and Harvard. The central premise behind "The Great Debaters" isn't the problem; it is the padding material surrounding it that is unsatisfying.
As instructor Melvin Tolson, Denzel Washington plays the role with a stern but virtuous hand. It, along with Forrest Whitaker's strong turn as James Jr.'s protective father, are actually support for the lead parts portrayed by Denzel Whitaker and Jurnee Smollett (2005's "Roll Bounce
"). As James Jr., Whitaker has the kind of smile and gleam in his eye to light up the darkest of nights, and he is nothing short of a delight to watch as his talent spills out on the screen. Unforced and natural and wonderfully charismatic, he is, indeed, the highlight of the film. As Samantha, Jurnee Smollett is also superb, emanating kindness and fierce determination. It couldn't have hurt to develop Samantha more, however, as her background, including the path she has taken to attend Wiley College as one of the few female students, is never discussed or brought up.
"The Great Debaters" is well-meaning and capably filmedone wide shot of a train traveling down a heavily wooded track, the engine smoke rising from above the leafy brush, is dazzlingbut it seems to be missing key scenes and information that could have informed the story better. James Jr. is set up as an amateur debater, for example, but the first and only time he takes the stage before the third act occurs offscreen for no good reason. The film also takes place at a classic movie-style college where, apparently, Mel teaches no one aside from his three debate members, and the students are never seen actually attending any classes. This is just sloppy. When "The Great Debaters" ends, expect to be uplifted despite the inherent schmaltz. Think about the film for any length of time afterwards, and the wheels of its storytelling undeniably begin to deflate.