Denzel Washington is nothing if he isn’t resilient. His latest film, “The Great Debaters” proves that when he decides to cease being a force in front of the camera he can still make a major impact sitting behind it.
Based on a true story, “The Great Debaters” tells the powerful story of the 1935 Wiley College debate team headed by Professor Melvin Tolson (Washington). Located in the heart of the racist south and living side by side with Whites that lack the education of the “inferior” Blacks, it makes for a rather uncomfortable existence. But Tolson will not be deterred as he holds tryouts for his debate team.
He selects four principles that later whittle to three (Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker) once word gets around about his after-hours labor organizing activities. While Tolson is sharpening the debating skills of his team, school president James Farmer, Sr. is trying to keep his dignity and raise his family during the turbulent times. In addition, he is trying set a positive education-first example for his son James Farmer, Jr. (Whitaker) – yes, the same one who became one of the “Big Three” of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Wiley College team begins to experience success, but Professor Tolson has loftier goals. He wants to prove to his students that they shouldn’t be the best Black students that they could be, just the best period. To that end he wants them to take on the National College Debate champions at Harvard University.
Produced by Oprah Winfrey and featuring two Oscar winners in Washington and Whitaker the film has an impressive pedigree and strong foundation. But just as Washington was able to extract a career performance from a little-known actor named Derek Luke in “Antwone Fisher,” he works his magic again with his young trio.
There is not one bad performance in this film and the talented young cast of Smollett, Parker and the brilliant Whitaker are the fuel that gives this uplifting story its power. Much like a talented band, each actor gets an opportunity for a solo and each of them deliver strong performances as if their very lives depended on them. Let’s not forget Kimberly Elise and Gina Ravera who took small and forgettable roles and made them memorable.
But it all comes back to the big two of Washington and Whitaker who in one incredible scene get a chance to go at each other like two proud warriors. The result, reminiscent of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Heat,” is just an enduring snapshot of one of the year’s best films.
Squeezing every ounce of his considerable God-given talent, Washington has shown that he is not only a worthy successor to the legendary Sidney Poitier but he has shown that he is willing and able to emulate his successful blueprint.
By the time the lights come up, you’ll be in agreement that there is no “debating” that as a storyteller Washington is the truth.