Directed by Denzel Washington the road to good is of ten paved with good intentions. Director-star Denzel Washington and producer Oprah Winfrey want to tell an inspirational true story in The Great Debaters. So why cut corners to do it? Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, the professor and poet who coaches his all-black Texas debate team from Wiley College to victory against Harvard in 1935. My guess is the inspiration would have increased exponentially the closer it stayed to the truth. For starters, Wiley beat the University of Southern California, not the vaunted Harvard. And the Wiley team was forbidden to claim victory because it did not belong to the national debate society, which refused to admit blacks until after World War II. A downer ending, sure, but one that digs deeper into our country's shameful history with racism. The actors are all solid, especially Denzel Whitaker as fourteen-year-old Wiley debater James Farmer Jr., who would go on to found the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. A few strong scenes show James rebelling against his strict scholar father (the reliably excellent Forest Whitaker). Sadly, pure fabrication dominates the weak scenes of pudgy James mooning over fellow debater Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). To his credit, Washington – following his 2002 directing debut, An twone Fisher – works in searing moments of civil rights history, including a lynching witnessed by the team. That moment speaks more eloquently than anything in Robert Eisele's formulaic script. Resolved: that Hollywood is detrimental to truth. Debate.
From The Archives Issue 1044: January 24, 2008