*The Great Debaters (PG-13)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
In his impressive directorial debut, 2002's Antwone Fisher, Washington took a script that couldn't have been more clichd and turned it into a touching movie. He made you forget almost that there was barely a drop of originality to be found in the piece.
And that's pretty much what we've got in The Great Debaters, Washington's second outing as director. It's infinitely more polished than Fisher, which was plenty polished already. But this one practically shimmers with the kind of aura typically surrounding the movies that take home little golden statues. And, indeed, the film has received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture.
This is not one of the best movies of the year, however. It's a pretty good, pleasing enough evening out, and it will be an excellent rental in a few months, but it's too easy and too complacent, especially considering that it's about fighting easy complacency. It's like prepackaged Hollywood claptrap gussied up in a smart suit that it can't quite wear comfortably.
But we've suffered recently through a long line of come-from-behind, triumph-of-the-underdog flicks. Compared to those, The Great Debaters is cinematic gold, clichs and all.
Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro's script is based on a true story, though some substantial changes have been made. It is the predictable, and predictably heartwarming, tale of a debate team from a small black college in Texas during the Great Depression that ends up taking on, by the commencement of Act III, the snobby white boys of Hahvahd University. But this is one of those substantial changes: The real students who inspired this film did not face off against Harvard just at the moment when it would give the people and their small town a boost of confidence and pride.
And it's probably a sure bet that those real students didn't happen to luck into competition debate topics that so perfectly coincided with their own personal struggles as people and as minorities in an era that was having trouble granting them their sovereignty.
But the performances make The Great Debaters worthwhile. Washington, as the debaters' coach, and Forest Whitaker, as another college professor with a rather different philosophy, square off in electrifying fashion (though the subplot involving Washington's work with sharecroppers to unionize, and subsequent accusations that he must therefore be a communist, never quite gels). Also, it's a bit extraordinary that it goes almost uncommented on that one member of the debate team is a 14-year-old prodigy (Denzel Whitaker, no relation to Forest, though he does play the son of Forest's character).
It's plausible enough that the 1930s Harvard boys don't object to debating students from a black college, but it's almost impossible to believe they didn't at least have a snide remark about the little kid in their midst, no matter how clever he is.
What we'll remember about this movie in 10 years: the debut of Jurnee Smollett as the only female student on the team. The Harvard guys don't object to her presence, either, which also seems unlikely. But perhaps they're as won over by her as we are. Smollett steals the show with her passion and her charisma, giving the film its truest sense of discovery and triumph.
Though we've seen underdog stories like this one before, this one's a winner.