Even in a movie as formulaic as The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington manages to create a character who keeps us guessing. The truth-based tale of a debate team at a small Southern black college in 1935 borrows familiar elements from both underdog sports movies and inspirational teacher movies, but Washington's portrayal of the complicated debate coach is anything but clichéd. His performance, combined with equally subtle character renderings from Forest Whitaker and newcomer Nate Parker, makes this predictable movie worth watching.
Though its plot devices are very familiar, The Great Debaters, also directed by Denzel, benefits from an inspiring story and a unique premise. It's set in segregation- and Depression-era Texas, when middle-class blacks attended college even as lynching was still a fact of daily life.
It is both a hostile and fitting backdrop for a determined team of college debaters: the graceful Samantha (Jurnee Smollett), who aims to be a lawyer; well-read but angry young man Henry (Parker); and the optimistic and overachieving 14-year-old, James Farmer Jr., played by the improbably named Denzel Whitaker (no relation). We get the requisite scenes of Tolson's tough training techniques, as well as a budding romance, family drama, and plenty of impassioned speeches as the Wiley College debaters handily defeat a string of opponents. After a victory over the much larger Fisk, Prof. Tolson sets out to get a match against Harvard, who eventually extends an invitation.
Unfortunately, the script isn't as smart as I would have liked it to be; the supposedly brilliant debaters aren't given very poignant lines to work with. But, particularly because the story is based on fact, you can't help but get caught up in the characters' astounding ambition and victory over seemingly impossible adversity. Of course, the phrase "victory over adversity" should suggest that this isn't the most original movie ever, but it's a fitting feel-good drama for the holidays.
To see the trailer and more clips from The Great Debaters check out movies.ivillage.com.