What a rich and fun – as well as tense and complex – movie The Great Debaters is.
Denzel Washington wanted to tell this story, and knew the best way to finance it was to become the star. The main character, a professor at small all-black Wiley College in Texas, is not the smooth Denzel, but an angry, frustrated, perfectionist Denzel, with his own motives and rare courage.
He is the debate team coach in 1935, who tests the toughness of the students before he selects them. Then he pushes them to their limits, training them in research and in debate tactics. The powerful secondary story here is race and class in the rural South pre-World War II. Personal and systemic tension are present.
The language is powerful, the relationships tangled, the path and choices not always clear.
Forrest Whittaker plays a powerful preacher, his own son plays his son – a debater who will grow up to be James Farmer, Jr., the gifted revolutionary who founded the Congress of Racial Equality.
This is, in many ways, a feel good movie, but one with real bite. Excellent.