Underdog sports movies in which kids achieve excellence while overcoming racist expectations make pretty easy sells: Come for the sports action and stay for the uplift. The Great Debaters follows a similar formula to Remember The Titans and Pride, but swaps in debating for sports. That wouldn't be the worst idea if the film had any faith in the spoken word. But for a movie about a debate team—one with the word "debaters" in the title, no less—Denzel Washington's second effort as a director doesn't have that much interest in what a debate looks and sounds like. We get snippets and one-liners, but the debates themselves have been trimmed to TV-commercial length. It's like a karate movie in which the fight scenes have been cut to a couple of punches, and it's sadly indicative of Debaters' unwillingness to engage the issues it raises with any depth.
Washington's film has other things going for it, namely his terrific performance as Mel Tolson, a real-life debate coach at East Texas' historically black Wiley College, which Tolson led to debating glory in the 1930s. Washington plays Tolson as a man so fiercely uncompromising that a place on his squad served as a continual baptism of fire. The film also chillingly captures life in the Jim Crow American South. Playing a fellow Wiley professor, Forest Whitaker is forced to sign over his paycheck to a white farmer after accidentally killing his pig, in a scene that captures the way institutionalized racism drains the dignity away from every facet of life for those on its losing end. Whitaker and Washington don't dominate the spotlight, either. The film nicely showcases some up-and-coming young actors, including a teenager named Denzel Whitaker, who plays Forest Whitaker's son and looks remarkably like Whitaker, though they aren't related.
Too bad the story is all over the place. One second, it focuses on a love triangle between students; the next, it's about Washington's efforts to unionize the local farmers. Though the story is "inspired" by the real-life Wiley College debate team, the details have been altered for maximum uplift, adding a female debater and making the climactic opponent Harvard instead of USC. (Why? USC's a pretty good school too.) Resolved: A movie should be inspirational above all, even at the expense of other qualities. On the affirmative side, The Great Debaters.