It goes without saying that Denzel Washington does a great job playing Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters. I can’t think of an instance where the man did a poor acting job. But Washington also did really well with directing. The story moves at a good pace, never lingering too long or going too fast and Washington chooses wonderful angles and points of reference throughout the film. The Great Debaters tells the real life story of a professor at a small black college in the south in the 1930’s who creates a truly unbeatable debate team of black college students (male and female) at a time when race, gender and equality were very volatile issues. The events that inspired this film are truly amazing and I encourage you to look more into the real story.
Washington and Oprah (producer) did a great job with casting. Forest Whitaker gives his usual flawless and nuanced performance and Kimberly Elise and Gina Ravera execute their roles of doting wives quite well. But it’s the debaters who really stand out in this film. Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker) have done a marvelous job.
Parker plays gorgeous, cocky, intuitive and street smart Henry Lowe. Watching this movie, I believe in Henry Lowe. I’m buying every hand gesture, every smirk and every boundary pushing comment he makes. Smollett is equally endearing as the beautiful, demure, but no less smart tongued Samantha Brooke. You might remember Smollett from her title role in 1997’s Eve’s Bayou. She was a fabulous child actor in that film and she’s a fabulous adult actor now. Babyfaced 17-year-old actor Denzel Whitaker plays the role of James Farmer, Jr., a precocious, socially awkward, extremely bright young man who is the son of Forest Whitaker’s domineering character. There’s a fourth debater played by Jermaine Williams, but his character is not quite as developed as the other characters. He does a good job with is role as well though.
The Great Debaters is a feel-good, uplifting film that manages to steer away from being too cheesey and deliver a truly enjoyable story. Go see it! I am really really looking forward to seeing Parker and Smollett in more roles. Parker in particular gave a standout performance.