Movies 28 May 2008 04:42 pm
The year is 1935, and Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at a small, rural university in Texas, is preparing his debate team to take on the undisputed giants of the sport: Harvard. Chief among his challenges is that he and his team are black at a time when the nation was less tolerant of racial differences and more willing to categorize and judge a person by skin color.
That’s the set-up of The Great Debaters, a 2007 film newly released on DVD. Denzel Washington plays Tolson and also directs a talented cast of veterans (including fellow Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) and newcomers (including Denzel Whitaker, who is related to neither Whitaker nor Washington, despite the name coincidence) in the story of the Wiley College debate team and their meteoric rise during the Great Depression.
It’s a good film, and very inspiring. I love stories where the power of words is given its due, over and above brawn and beauty. When this team debates, it feels like a debate, with all the crackling intellectualism of the sport.
Which isn’t to say that this is simply an egghead movie. It’s much more. Tolson is also a radical who believes the sharecroppers in his state should unionize, an opinion that sets him at odds with his school, his fellow faculty members, some of his students and the law. Denzel Whitaker’s character is at odds with his stern father, especially after a harrowing incident early in movie that reminds us just how different 1935 is from 2008.
After a confusing opening sequence that jumps among several principal characters, Washington settles into the directing chair and gives the story plenty of room to unfold at a leisurely pace. Some might say a little too leisurely, but the few instances where the film drags are more than offset by the times when it totally engrossing. Recommended.