Debating the Merits of the Underdog Movie Formula

Denzel Washington i i

Denzel Washington plays the debate team's coach, Melvin B. Tolson, in The Great Debaters. On screen, he manages to come across as both a rebel and a saint. David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films
Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington plays the debate team's coach, Melvin B. Tolson, in The Great Debaters. On screen, he manages to come across as both a rebel and a saint.

David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films
The debate team.

Jurnee Smollett (from left), Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker in The Great Debaters. David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films
The debate team.

Jurnee Smollett (from left), Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker play members of the debate team at Wiley College. David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films

The Great Debaters, a new movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington, is based on little-known but true events. In 1935, Wiley College, a small historically black college in Marshall, Texas, fielded a debate team that did so well in match-ups with other black schools, it was invited to do something almost unthinkable in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation: debate a team from a white college.

The Wiley team was led by Professor Melvin B. Tolson. As played by Washington, he is simultaneously a rebel who inspires his students and a bit of a saint. He organizes sharecroppers (both black and white) so they won't be exploited by landowners, hangs around juke joints to make sure brawls don't become murders and takes troubled students under his protective wing — asking the more combative ones to try out for the debate team.

At the tryouts, Tolson refers to debate as a "blood-sport," a broad hint about where the picture is headed. He is, after all, a fiercely competitive coach, with an underdog team made up of rookies. You know the rest of that formula, right? Before they get to the big match, Wiley's debaters will experience fumbles in logic, rhetorical end-runs and a couple of argumentative Hail Mary's, as they exercise their minds — all thoroughly admirable and a trifle overdone.

Opposite Washington's firebrand, Forrest Whitaker's more devout character, James Farmer Sr., is a moderating, Martin Luther King-like presence, even getting involved in a street march.

Farmer's son, played by the young Denzel Whitaker (who is not related to either of his costars, despite the coincidental name overlap), grew up to be a celebrated civil rights leader, and the film trails him as he witnesses a disturbing array of brutality, including a harrowing lynching.

In short, there is a lot of history up there on screen, but there's also a good deal of fictionalizing — composite characters, debate topics that are excessively on-point, even some inflation regarding Wiley's big showdown, which in real life was with the University of Southern California, not Harvard.

Does this diminish the film? Well, that's, debatable I suppose. Certainly it makes The Great Debaters an unreliable witness to history. But formulas become formulaic because they work, and in Hollywood terms, this one works ... well enough.

'The Great Debaters'

Denzel Washington in 'The Great Debaters'

Denzel Washington directs and stars in The Great Debaters, a film about a debate team from a historically black college competing against a team from a white college in 1935. David Lee/TWC 2007 hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/TWC 2007
  • Director: Denzel Washington
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 123 min

In 1935, Wiley College, a historically black college in Marshall, Texas, fielded a debate team that went largely undefeated. It did so well, in fact, that it was invited to debate a team from a white college, an event almost unthinkable in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation.

The preparation for that historic event is chronicled in somewhat fictionalized form in a formulaic but affecting drama directed by Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey. Washington stars as professor Melvin B. Tolson; Forrest Whitaker plays fellow prof James Farmer, whose namesake son grew up to be a civil rights leader. The younger Farmer is played by 17-year-old Denzel Whitaker (who is related to neither of his co-stars).

The film is essentially a sports-underdog story centering on debating, and anyone who knows how sports-underdog stories generally go will have no trouble predicting the outcome. Still, formulas become formulaic because they work, and this variation champions literacy, reading, hard work and kids who use brains rather than brawn to triumph against tough odds.

Some early scenes are so powerful — a white sheriff and farmers breaking up a sharecropper's meeting, a lynching, a trip to a neighboring college that takes the team past a lynching — that their effect is to diminish the dramatic impact of the big debate — it's a little like following up a war with a game of bridge. And the composite characters and event-inflation (Wiley debated the University of Southern California, but there's no evidence that the team debated Harvard, as happens in the film) make the history lesson seem a bit suspect. Still, Washington's work is solid both in front of and behind the camera, and the other performances are all striking.

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