Denzel Washington impresses both in front of the camera and behind it in The Great Debaters, his second feature as a director. Although debate teacher Melvin Tolson is a stock character from Washington's repertoire -- a firebrand given to rousing speeches and a stoical sense of righteousness -- it's also a typically strong performance. Besides, it's really the other characters and details that make The Great Debaters shine. For one, production designer David James Bomba and art director John Jensen have given us a handsomely dressed and wholly authentic version of East Texas and Boston of the 1930s, which simultaneously feels lived in and pops off the screen. But it's the actors who populate that setting who bring it to life. Most impressive may be 16-year-old Denzel Whitaker -- who, despite his name, bears no relation to either of the film's co-stars (Washington and Forest Whitaker, though the young actor was actually named after Washington). Young Whitaker commands his range of emotions in a way that's truly unusual for an actor his age, and likewise, he commands the most attention during his ensemble scenes. Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker, as the other two central debaters, are more than capable in flanking Whitaker -- Smollett overcoming her character's initial timidity to show the passion smoldering inside, and Parker fighting powerful demons and urges that cloud his imposing intellectual skills. In its meaty content, The Great Debaters leaves few stones unturned when it comes to the stimulating social issues of the day, be it Southern racism, the welfare debate, labor politics, or the role of women in society. The Great Debaters is constructed more or less as an underdog sports story, and in that sense it contains few surprises. It's the details of the journey, and the precision of the performances, that make this one worth watching.
by Derek Armstrong review