The latest in a subset genre I like to call "teacher genres", The Great Debaters is Denzel Washington's second directorial effort after the critically acclaimed Antwone Fisher. Washington also stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a teacher who led his all-black debate team to go up against a white school - Harvard, no less - for the first time in history.
The Great Debaters is, for the most part, your typical teacher drama; there's Denzel playing the rebellious role model who inspires his kids to do great things, a couple of students (Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker) who defy the odds and stick with him, and an underdog story of a bunch of black kids who go up against an all-white school. In many ways, Washington has taken elements from some of the safest formulas and put them together. That being said, while The Great Debaters is pretty safe, Washington has made the film his own. There is a strong and rich racism theme to the picture, exemplified through some well-done scenes such as one where the characters come across a mob lynching, and another where Forest Whitaker has to face a couple of rednecks after he hits their pig with his car. Oh, and Washington's character is also a communist.
The movie is a solid follow-up to Antwone Fisher; that movie was good, but felt raw and unfinished at times. The Great Debaters feels complete, even if it is a bit too glossy at times. The writing is good, as is the acting. Washington is terrific, and seems to be having a lot of fun with the material. He's a bit difference here than he has been in other films, which is nice. And, of course, any movie with both Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker together is a must-see.
The younger actors also do a pretty good job, though there's no break-out performances here. I liked Denzel Whitaker, and his name - it's sort of funny that he's named after Washington and shares his last name with Forest Whitaker, but isn't related to either of them.
Overall, The Great Debaters is a great little film. There is nothing particularly remarkable about it, and yet in many ways it is relatively flawless. If it does have a fault, it is that it breaks no new boundaries, and in a year where so many films have broken so many, the movie comes off feeling a bit ordinary. In any other year, this film would have deserved the Golden Globe nomination received, but this year, it just doesn't compare. Nevertheless, I still recommend to The Great Debaters as it is one of the better feel-good movies of the year, and still a quality drama.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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