A review of “The Great Debaters” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for language, mature themes and brief sexuality

Run Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

 

 

Turns out Denzel Washington makes magic on both sides of the camera.

Washington helms and stars in this tight period weeper inspired by an African American college debate team that took the circuit by storm in the deeply segregated 1930s South.

The mid-1930s was a time of change, with seeds of revolution planted from Houston to Harlem. A fact not unnoticed by radical Wiley College poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson (Washington) who endeavors to fill his students’ heads with more than mindless facts and figures.

To that end Tolson fashions himself a debate team of the fiercest young minds, sidestepping the conventional wisdom of the times that equates blacks with failure. His philosophy: to find, take back and keep your righteous mind.

The team – three men and (gasp) a woman – struggles to get it right. In fits and starts they discover their rhythm and along with it a burning passion for the spoken word and Black American rights.

The essential outline is spare, even a tad formulaic, but Washington works hard at fleshing out the humanity of his players and their static environment. A team member’s strict preacher father (Forest Whitaker) who can’t show affection, a bigoted town sheriff (John Heard) rabidly opposed to the local sharecroppers’ burgeoning labor union and a moody romance between team leaders Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) that jeopardizes the team’s perfectly calibrated balance.

Knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, Washington and company pull narrative punches when the story threatens to fall back on convention, rendering the whole off-kilter enough to maintain intrigue.

Rivers of racial tension flow into an eddy of stirring sentiment, a rousing cry for justice, equality and freedom. Oh so naturally the story culminates in the grandest debate of them all; a stand-up-and-cheer, break-out-your-handkerchiefs triumph over the odds.

Every year there’s a movie that shamelessly moves me to tears and this is the one. Affecting, sentimental and worth every penny of your holiday entertainment budget.