The Great Debaters

The story of the champion debate team nurtured in the 1930s at the all-black Wiley College in rural Texas is so amazing that it’s infuriating to see producer Oprah Winfrey, director Denzel Washington, and screenwriter Robert Eisele add so much spin, including a climactic argument that anticipates Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent tactics by two decades. Washington plays the tough-love coach, poet and activist Melvin B. Tolson; Denzel Whitaker is the team’s youngest member, James Farmer Jr., who later founded the Congress of Racial Equality; and Forest Whitaker (no relation) plays his remarkable father. The other three debaters (Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, Jermaine Williams) are fictional composites, and for some reason the climactic match has been moved from the University of Southern California to Harvard. Conceived like a sports movie, this delivers passion, nuance, and historical insight along with unnecessary hokum. PG-13, 123 min. (JR)

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.