The fine cast of The Great Debaters, this well-told, sane and safe drama directed by Denzel Washington includes Nate Parker as Henry Lowe, Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr., and Jurnee Smollett as Samatha Booke. The screenplay written by Robert Eisele chronicles just one of the achievements of Melvin B. Tolson, debate coach extraordinaire, during his tenure at a small black college in 1930s Marshall, Texas. Wiley College was home to Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) and the debaters he coached to an historical winning season culminating in a Harvard debate. This movie builds nicely to a final half hour that includes an anticipated face-off.
Like Medieval rivals lining up to joust, debaters regard their prey. Like hearing the first bars of familiar Beethoven, you know what comes next. Great debaters, like great composers, play with words; words as weapons, words as melodious strains of a winning strategy. Debaters must marry together pretty, powerful words that hit an intended target — the right ones transport, the left ones really strong sprinklings of verses from history, literature, mythology, and life after all. The best ones needed for bite. Thoreau made this movie, this drama about a great debate as gift, possible. While I am not crazy about the title The Great Debaters, I am crazy about this movie. It is a memorable, old-fashioned movie that does not cook up convoluted concepts to unravel or flimsy flashbacks that confuse. No, it is straightforwardly simple, nonfiction storytelling at its best.
While Denzel Washington both directs and stars in this drama, he also takes a huge step back and allows the young men and woman of the cast to shine. Tolson is a bizarre black man. We find him in the opening scene dressed as a sharecropper at midnight. He passes a nearby juke joint and saves student Henry Lowe from a bad beating at the hands of an almost-cuckolded husband. At this auspicious first meeting, neither man is aware that he will become part of the Wiley College winning debate team in the future. Lowe, played strongly by Nate Parker, is irresponsible and remains true to character throughout the movie.