I guess it's safe to say that whenever you see Denzel Washington play an African-American community-destroying antihero in a movie, a movie where he plays an uplifting, life-saving influence/pillar of the black community (also directed by him!) isn't far behind.
It happened after he did his Oscar-winning role as that crooked cop in "Training Day." He went from that to his directorial debut "Antwone Fisher," where he was a Navy psychiatrist getting Derek Luke's angry, tormented sailor to open up and let go.
Now, after he recently spent screen time turning Harlem into a heroin wasteland as drug kingpin Frank Lucas in "American Gangster," Washington is once again helping young people better and understand themselves in "The Great Debaters." It's a pity there's already a movie about to drop soon called "Atonement." It kinda seems as if that's what this movie is all about for the actor/director.
I can't help but think "Debaters" is something of a do-over for dear Denzel. Just like "Fisher," "Debaters" is a true story that centers on an older black man serving as a mentor to a hotheaded but highly intelligent young black man. But whereas "Fisher" suffered from a weakly structured, self-congratulatory script (from Antwone Fisher himself) and even dry, uninviting direction from first-timer Washington, "Debaters" is confident, assured and, most of all, engaging. The first five minutes alone, cross-cutting mostly between a backwoods juke joint and a minister (an ever-so-stately Forest Whitaker) riveting a college auditorium audience, crackle and pulsate. The jubilant blues soundtrack almost rattles you to the core. It's almost as if Washington is letting us know right off the bat that he, indeed, has his game face on for this one.
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Set in an all-black college in mid-1930s Texas, the film has Washington in the role of Melvin B. Tolson, the professor/poet who also rounds up the university debate team to compete against other black colleges. As mentioned earlier, he sets his sights on a suave, stubborn student (Nate Parker). But he also coaches three other students, including a green but dedicated woman (Jurnee Smollett) and the preacher's baby-faced son (Denzel Whitaker, who looks like a much-younger Sean Kingston and is neither related to Denzel or Whitaker).
"Debaters" is all about the uplift. The film was produced by none other than Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films, and Denzel and Oprah put their backs into making this a positive, inspirational experience for any audience member. They even go about fudging the facts a bit to make sure audiences leave the theater proud and rejoicing. The grand finale has the team going up against lily-white Harvard. Yeah, that didn't happen. (Technically, the team went up against USC; I guess Washington and Winfrey decided going up against a bunch of Cali kids would have made a less dramatic climax.)
Luckily, they work with a busy, layered script, from Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro (acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks reportedly had a hand in the scriptwriting), that keeps the platitudes to a minimum and the story always moving. Even when the movie slings out subplots full of predictable possibilities -- a love triangle among the students, the radical Tolson being targeted by the police for his extracurricular farmer-unionizing activities -- the movie buzzes along.
"Debaters" also never loses sight of what it was all about back then: black people trying to get their voice heard in the Jim Crow South. As lynchings were common during those times, "Debaters" subtly tags these youngsters as not just inspirational figures, but brave, fearless heroes.
Of course, Washington vividly captures all of this with equal parts humor, heart and, above all, integrity.
"The Great Debaters" is a night at the movies that I can proudly say is a decent, respectable, good time.
Besides, I don't think I could say a bad thing about this movie even if I wanted to. This is a Denzel and Oprah production we're talking about here! If the people who work for them won't take me out, I'm sure the people who love and adore them wouldn't mind tearing me limb from limb.