'Great Debaters': Simply Eloquent

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One thing is clear from the beginning of "The Great Debaters." Denzel Washington, who directed as well as stars in the film, knew that for it to inspire, motivate, educate, shame and grip, first of all it had to entertain.

So he turns the tale of how tiny black Wiley College, of Marshall, Tex., out-argued the white national debate champion in 1935 into a rouser, a stunner, almost a jubilee of emotion and suspense by the old standards of Hollywood melodrama, circa the time the actual events themselves took place.

Washington opens his film not in the august halls of the hero-institution that spawned the great debaters but in a honky-tonk swamp crib, where the hooch flows freely, the beat-beat-beat of the music is powerful, and the boys and girls (but mostly girls) are dancing up a storm to beat the devil down or bring him up, whatever. It's bravura staging, almost a pure musical number that calls up the era -- a sense of the Old South in the depth of the Depression, where folks took pleasure where they could find it -- and introduces the movie's two antagonists and its two symbolic points of view.

Mel Tolson -- though he's a poet, debate coach, labor organizer and mentor, we don't know it yet, because he's in his shabby country clothes -- saves young Henry Lowe from tragedy when Henry fixes on a young woman affiliated with another, larger man. Henry escapes, owing the older man everything, but he's too prideful to acknowledge the debt. And that will be their relationship as Mel (Washington) coaches Henry (Nate Parker) and three others to a significant assertion of black intellectual chops on a national scale in American history. Mel will always be a realist, taking what is available without a fight, a day at a time; and Nate will always be a radical, wanting that fight now, steaming with aggression. That dynamic pretty much defines the movie.

Still, time and time again, Washington the director brings a set piece, usually put to music (like a fantasy dance sequence) or violence (a horrific evocation of a lynching) engineered to give the movie the broadest popular appeal. By and large, he succeeds. It's a David and Goliath tale played to the max, all stops pulled out. Manipulative? You bet. That's the point, after all. Truthful? Well . . . more or less, or perhaps less or more. And maybe that's not the point.

Washington's Mel sounds the film's clarion at an early moment, citing the philosophy of the infamous slug who gave his name to the word "lynch," and understood the practice of oppression with extreme acuity: Keep the slave's body strong but his mind weak. Use his muscles, steal his brain. Keep him stupid, uneducated, hating himself for the inferiority that you have imposed upon him, and that will keep him docile and productive and childish. It is Mel and a handful of other black intellectuals -- many of them in the then-ongoing Harlem Renaissance of which Tolson was aware, but not a member -- who understood this and sought to destroy it not with Molotov cocktails and tommy guns but with books.

So the movie tells how the whirlwind of a smart guy from up North comes to the small Southern school and by the strength of charisma and passion prods his charges to learn to fight -- the punch and counterpunch, the overhand, the left, the right, the uppercut, the body blow, the head shot -- but with words, not fists. The script watches as he takes his young charges -- besides Henry, there's James (Denzel Whitaker) and Samantha (Jurnee Smollett) and, for a time, Garrett (Jackson Walker) -- and puts them in a crucible of tension and oratorical exercise to toughen them up for the struggle ahead.

The movie is full of great performances: Washington is the faculty upstart to Forest Whitaker's stolid college president. To watch these two great actors going after each other and the camera in a mini-debate at a holiday party is one of the big pleasures of the movie and the year. Parker, Walker and Whitaker (who, though he shares parts of names of the big stars, is related to neither of them) are terrific, even if the parts are more emblem than character.

But the movie belongs to Smollett. There's such passion and pain in her performance. She plays a woman named Samantha Booke, who wants to be Texas's third practicing African American female lawyer. She's dignified, but her hold on dignity is precious; she's brilliant, but her confidence in her mind is trembly; she's beautiful but won't let it go to her head; she's vulnerable, though she tries to hide it. And she's fantastic, particularly in convincing you how, though assailed by doubts, clouded with emotion and racked with fear, she finds a voice that's musical in its purity. If they should ever make a movie of Anne Moody's great memoir "Coming of Age in Mississippi" (and I hope they do), Smollett is the actress for the lead role.

Washington the director is at his best when the movie is in the South, and he can evoke both the heat of a long summer day, the shabby-genteel clapboard houses, the near-universal fear among blacks, even university presidents, when they run into white folks who have the law, the culture and a bad attitude on their side. He really makes you feel all that almost effortlessly.

He's less successful in the North, where the white people tend to become stereotypical. I suppose it's all right that the screenplay changes the school that Wylie beat from University of Southern California to Harvard, and I suppose it's all right that Harvard is represented not as racist but as an almost icon-pure paradigm of sanctimonious white superiority, full of epicene aristos who mean well but just can't stop believing in their own superiority. Harvard certainly doesn't need me as a defender any more than it needed me as a student. But it should be noted that the great university on the River Charles was and is a font of progressive and liberal thought, and that the philosophers whose transcendentalism made the Civil War a possibility and influenced Robert Gould Shaw, who led a black unit to its (and his) death in a bloody Civil War battle, were all its products. All that is something along the lines of the university's motto, "Veritas," that the movie neglects to mention.

But it's broad-stroke populism, preaching redemption through education and hard work and serious application of the muscles of the brain. It's a great family movie, if not historically perfect, and something that a lot of people are going to like a lot.

The Great Debaters (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult material including violence and disturbing images, and for profanity and brief sexual content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company