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The Great Debaters 

Dir. Denzel Washington; writ. Robert Eisele; feat. Forest Whitaker, Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker (PG-13)

So erudite and accomplished is Professor James Farmer (Forest Whitaker) that one awestruck student declares, “He must be the smartest man in Texas.” Though he loves and reveres his father, James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker, no relation to either Forest Whitaker or Denzel Washington) replies: “That’s not saying much.”

The Great Debaters says much about Texas as a racist sump, at least during the Depression. It is a place where ignorant crackers call a distinguished black scholar “boy” and a nighttime drive on a country road leads to a lynching. “Inspired by a true story,” Denzel Washington’s directorial debut is itself an inspiring story, about how talent and determination defeat Jim Crow.

Located in Marshall, Texas, Wiley is what used to be called a “Negro college,” and, though its student body numbered only 360 in 1935, it achieved national renown for a championship debate team. The Great Debaters employs the Hollywood formula of tracking underdog competitors en route to unlikely victory; think of those football, baseball, even ice-hockey squads that overcome adversity to triumph in the final reel. Think, most pertinently, of last year’s Glory Road, which recounts how the all-black Texas Western College team won the 1966 NCAA basketball championship.

“Debate is blood sport,” Wiley coach Melvin B. Tolson warns his team, and The Great Debaters makes high drama out of intercollegiate forensics. The topic “Resolved: Negroes should be admitted to state universities” possesses more than academic interest for the Wiley debaters, who defeat African American opponents and long to prove themselves against a white school. As Coach Tolson, a gifted poet and a radical labor organizer, Washington is a commanding presence. As director, he squeezes scenes to extract every drop of emotion.

The climax of Wiley’s quest for recognition comes far from redneck Texas — in tolerant Massachusetts, where its orators debate the “Anglo-Saxon” Harvard team. It is a rousing finale to a film that echoes with the bluesy music of the time and oozes with historical authenticity, except that the real-life Wiley team went West not East — to spar not with Harvard but rather the University of Southern California, still white, but not quite elite.

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December 1, 2021

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