By Connie Ogle
Denzel Washington’s earnest film about a debate team’s success in 1930s Texas is the sort of feel-good film you want badly to love but can’t quite commit to, thanks to a meandering focus and by-the-numbers sideplots that detract from the main drama.
Still, The Great Debaters is based on a true story that offers a refreshing twist on the predictably upbeat inspirational movie, substituting intellectual battles for athletic competition and upping the ante for the students of Wiley College, who, no matter how intelligent and creative they are, still slam up against the hard wall of racism in their small town.
But the hand-picked members of the debate team — unreliable Henry, serious Samantha, prodigy James — find a champion in Mr. Tollson (Washington), who grooms them to take on teams from bigger, whiter schools, including Harvard.
If the screenplay had remained trained more exclusively on the mechanics of debate and its nuances and rewards, the film might have been a minor miracle, a Remember the Titans of the mind. But instead the writers give equal time to Tollson’s union-organizing activities and a dull student love triangle, and it ends up trying to cover too much ground and dragging on far longer than its modest accomplishments merit.
And if the film needed to flesh itself out a bit, shame on the writers for not more fully expanding the character of James’ father (the excellent Forest Whitaker), a pastor proud of his son but wary of Tollson’s unpopular activities. His slow awakening to the need for justice offers a wealth of possibility — and just the right actor to explore it. Instead, The Great Debaters keeps things on the surface and pushes the obvious buttons, hoping you won’t notice its distinct lack of depth.