Washington, who also directs, plays Melvin Tolson, a hard-nosed instructor who, in 1935, coaches his co-ed team through racially motivated obstacles while simultaneously protecting a secret that threatens to derail his team's historic run. A self-righteous leader, Tolson fills his vessels with the knowledge that a proper education is their lone ticket to a balanced life. The school's president, played with stubborn dignity by Forest Whitaker, echoes this credo in quiet scenes with his son, who happens to be on Tolson's team. "We do what we have to do," the educator exclaims, "so we can do what we want to do." Part of Tolson's method is to drill mantras into his debaters' skulls. The judge is God. Their opponents do not matter. And the only way they will succeed is by telling the truth.
It's great advice, though Washington ignores it. Would it bother you to learn that the Wiley College debate team never beat Harvard? How about the fact that they never even competed against them? Wiley's biggest win in 1935 was against the University of Southern California, though Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele swap in the Ivy Leaguers for reasons that are unclear (and unnecessary). Such a revelation -- in my opinion -- cuts Debaters off at the knees, devaluing the last third of the film, where Tolson's protégés must think on their feet to prove they belong on the Cambridge stage, holding court with Harvard's top arguers. The phrase "inspired by" may buy a filmmaker creative leeway, but it's at the cost of credibility with an audience.
It's unfortunate, because the rest of Debaters can be inspirational. Washington's direction is pedestrian, but his fiery performance injects spitfire into the conventional teacher-student formula. Eisele makes sure Tolson always has a speech at the ready, and some of them are even good. Washington's passion infects his young co-stars, who are uniformly impressive. Young Denzel Whitaker -- who, believe it nor not, is related to neither Denzel Washington nor Forest Whitaker -- stands out from Tolson's trio. He plays James Farmer Jr., the sympathetic son of the school's president and the third leg in a disproportioned love triangle that includes fellow debaters Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker). During the film's finest moments, the oft-broken-hearted teenager discovers the strength to persevere, learning the true power behind the right words spoken at the right time. His inspiring delivery swells from within, and that's a fact that can't be debated.
He'll talk your ear off.
Run time: 126 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 25th December 2007
Box Office Worldwide: $30.2M
Production compaines: The Weinstein Company
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: Robert Eisele
Starring: Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson, Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke, Nate Parker as Henry Lowe, Forest Whitaker as Dr. James Farmer Sr., Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr., Kimberly Elise as Pearl Farmer, Jermaine Williams as Hamilton Burgess, Gina Ravera as Ruth Tolson, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Samantha Booke (as Jurnee Smollett), John Heard as Sheriff Dozier, Devyn A. Tyler as Helen Farmer (as Devyn Tyler), Trenton McClain Boyd as Nathaniel Farmer, Ritchie Montgomery as Deputy, Jackson Walker as Pig Owner, Tim Parati as Pig Farmer, Robert X. Golphin as Dunbar Reed, Justice Leak as Harland Osbourne, Glen Powell as Harvard Debater #1 (as Glen Powell Jr.), Brad Watkins as Harvard Debater #2, Brian Smiar as Harvard Dean, Damien Leake as Wilson, Voltaire Sterling as Paul Quinn Debater #1 (as Voltaire Rico Sterling), Stephen Rider as Paul Quinn Debater #2, Gordon Danniels as Paul Quinn Debate Judge, Donny Boaz as Oklahoma City College Debater #1, Samuel Elliott Whisnant as Oklahoma City College Debater #2 (as Sam Whisnant), Bonnie Johnson as Dr. Jennings, Charissa Allen as Benita, Michael Beasley as Trudell, Gary Mathis as Enormous Man, Georges Wilson as Samuel, Fahnlohnee R. Harris as Clementine (as Fahnlohnee Harris), Harold Evans as William Taylor (as Harold X. Evans), J.D. Evermore as Captain Wainwright, Sharon Jones as Lila, Kelvin Payton as Joseph, Southey Blanton as White Labor Organizer, Michael Mattison as White Sharecropper #1, Jeff Braun as White Sharecropper #2, Milton R. Gipson as Prairie View Professor, Frank Ridley as Security Guard, Jeremiah Kissel as Radio Announcer at Harvard Debate, Jack Radosta as White Man at Lynching, Marcus Lyle Brown as Howard Debater #1, Alvin Youngblood Hart as Juke Joint Musician #1 (as Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart), Dom Flemons as Juke Joint Musician #2 (as Dominique Flemons), Dom Flemons as Juke Joint Musician #3, Rhiannon Giddens as Juke Joint Musician #4, Ahmad Powell as Fisk Professor