The Great Debaters is Denzel Washington’s sophomoric attempt at directing a film (Antwone Fisher was his first). Like Remember the Titans, Dezel plays a “based on a true story” leader, who inspires young people to change what others think about equality. Does the change from pads to podiums make it any better?
The story is that of the 1930’s Wiley College’s debate team. Led by poet Mel Tolson (Washington), the team, consisting of a headstrong man, the first woman debater, and a 13-year old son of a professor start a hot streak of debate wins that finds them facing Harvard University. Along the way, they encounter lynchings, hostile environments, and all of the usual hatred associated with the South during that dark period of time.
A quick nugget of information: like most “Inspired by a true story’s” The Great Debaters is, large part fiction. The character of Henry Lowe is completely fictional, and the climatic scene against Harvard didn’t even take place (they faced USC for the National Championship). Yes, I know they did these things to create a better story, and it hasn’t bothered me with other “true” films, but it gave me a bad view on the Debaters.
On the positive side, Forest Whitaker is fantastic as Dr. James Farmer Sr, and his movie son, Denzel Whitaker, portrays the father-son bond perfectly. Also the movie really is moving. Although I am not African American, I was really moved by the film and the portrayal of the deep south. However, something was lacking. Perhaps it was the predictable plot, or the resemblance to the Titans. Whatever it is, it just fell a little flat for me.