Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
Nate Parker……….Henry Lowe
Denzel Washington……….Mel Tolson
Jermaine Williams……….Hamilton Burgess
Denzel Whitaker……….James Farmer, Jr.
Forest Whitaker……….James Farmer
Jurnee Smollett……….Samantha Booke
If Denzel Washington were to retire as an actor immediately and just focused on being a director, one wonders the sort of film resume he could put together if all he did was direct. But then again Washington certainly has earned his status as one of the highest paid and highest producing actors of his generation, which gives him leeway to do a project like this at his leisure. Out of this comes The Great Debaters, Washington’s period piece about the Wiley College debating team in 1935 that toppled defending national champion USC.
Washington does double duty as Mel Tolson, a professor at the college who is the advisor of the debate team. Verbal blood sport would be a more appropriate definition of how Tolson views debate and settles on four prodigal students to form the basis of his team. Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) is a humble, conservative guy off the debate floor but a fiery orator on it. Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) is a top notch student whose idea of a good time often gets him into trouble. Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) is a fiery speaker who dreams of becoming a lawyer. James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) rounds out the team as the 14 year old prodigy of James Farner (Forest Whitaker), a professor at the college. Together they form the basis of a team which goes undefeated amongst the black college circuit and wound up defeating white colleges, culminating in the victory over USC. While Denzel Washington substitutes Harvard for USC, no doubt for the name recognition, he’s crafted a terrific period piece about the time that doesn’t fall into the usual traps of showing racism in olden times.
As a director Washington clearly has learned from working with Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and other top notch directors in terms of his story-telling style. It’s clear and concise, weaving a two hour plus epic period piece into an absorbing, fascinating piece about the period. He doesn’t shy away from showing the racism of days gone by, but he doesn’t make it comical or farcical. There’s a sense of quietness he brings to it; this is the time before Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement but people were beginning to realize that upward mobility and education were not just possible, but that they were within the grasp of everyone. Tolson is a man trying to get his students to realize this and it’s a top performance from a man who’s known for it.
Washington is magnetic in his role as Tolson, taking full command of the screen in the way only he can. While he stays in the background long enough to let the rest of the cast tell the story, Washington’s performance as Tolson is up there with his best work. But it’s the rest of the cast that brings out the film’s story effectively. They work together effectively and have wonderful chemistry with one another; Washington clearly has inspired his cast. While his status as an actor may have something to do with it, as top talents usually bring about the best of those working with them, Washington the director has put them in the best position possible.
Washington the director also brings out some terrific moments in the film. When the team wanders into the act of a lynching, they are all affected in different ways. There’s a terrific scene between the elder Whitaker and the younger Whitaker right after this; there’s no dialogue spoken but the moment is gut-wrenching and raw. It’s this sort of strong moment that Washington uses remarkably well; it’s pure emotion between two people, not two characters, and it’s palpable.
The only flaw of the film is that we don’t get to know these characters enough; the film moves quickly into its exposition shortly after introducing the characters. We don’t get to know them early on, it takes some time. While they end up becoming characters we know and empathize with, Washington starts developing them much more effectively as he races towards the second act. It leaves the first part of the film a bit drab and rushed.
If Denzel Washington stopped acting today and turned his focus purely to directing, The Great Debaters would be a great early film of his. We can only hope this isn’t his last work behind the camera.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):