When you think of the classic 'sports movie' formula, you probably run through your favorite baseball or football movies, but make no mistake: Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters is every bit the sports flick that Hoosiers, The Natural and Remember the Titans are. It's only the extra-curriculars that have changed. Whether or not that's a good thing is entirely up to you, but if you're a big fan of totally predictable yet effectively entertaining "competition" movies, then there's very little chance you won't dig what's offered here. And even if you find the screenplay to be the pinnacle of all things obvious, the performances are still pretty excellent.
Plus, hell, if cheerleading is a sport, then so is debate.
Denzel Washington (directing his second film after 2002's Antwone Fisher) does a reliably excellent job of elevating basic material -- when he's on the screen, anyway; his character here is Melvin B. Tolson, debating coach for a black Texas college. The year is 1935, the civil rights movement is just starting to gain (a little) traction, and Tolson (despite being an unquestionably dedicated educator) is in big trouble thanks to his "questionable" politics.
The latest debate team for Wiley College is a broadly interesting one: the soft-spoken girl, the passionate hunk, the youthful prodigy, and ... the chubby one. Again, it's a good thing this movie has such a strong cast. Each of the young actors do exceedingly fine work with some fairly one-note roles. As the angry yet powerfully articulate Henry Lowe, Nate Parker is particularly excellent, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more movies from him in the future.
So based on the set-up I've already provided, you can pretty much guess what the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Great Debaters has on the menu: not-so-casual racism and a few horrific reminders of what black people suffered through in 1930s America; a listless romantic subplot that adds very little to the proceedings; a series of minor successes and (possibly!) devastating setbacks; several moments of heartfelt uplift; and a big, rousing finale in which the underdogs (maybe!) have their day. (Keep in mind, however, that this movie is merely "inspired" by actual events, and the true story is quite a bit different. This doesn't necessarily ruin the message, but must every story be polished up and amplified?)
Were it not so professionally constructed (and, more importantly, a memorial to some rather important events), one could dismiss The Great Debaters as yet another sports movie, only slightly more cerebral because it's dealing with ideas and arguments instead of basketballs and touchdowns. But sincerity does count for a lot, and for all its predictable plot turns and conventional payoffs, The Great Debaters is just a little bit worthier than "just another sports movie." It's as if Mr. Washington wanted to deliver a important story, but felt he had to stay firmly within the proven formula to get his message out.
Had the director opted to dig a little deeper, get a little rougher, and stray just a bit outside the established framework, The Great Debaters could have been a great film instead of just a good film. It's easily worth seeing for the superlative performances, the still-important history lessons, and the really excellent mid-'30s production design, but aside from the basic meat of the story, you've seen it all before. The Great Debaters is also beholden to one or two subplots that it really doesn't need. The professor's politics and the debate team's activities are more than enough to fill a worthwhile movie, but the screenplay dallies too long in dead-end side stories.
And if I could flip-flop just one last time, I do think it's extremely commendable for Winfrey, Washington and their producing partners to deliver a movie that may be formulaic and conventional, but also willing to confront the issues in a surprisingly frank manner. Although most of the film is pretty obvious, it also houses a few sequences -- including a truly harrowing lynch-mob scene -- that rise above the rest of the proceedings.