Denzel Washington's second feature as a director, The Great Debaters, is just about as warm, likable, uneven, and treacly as his almost well-received debut, Antwone Fisher. Both films deal modestly with tragedy and cue the strings for moments of triumph against odds. For some, both films will come across as potent, positive thinking, winners but there is such a thing as too much positivity and despite the many successes of The Great Debaters, its warmed over dramatics and unfocused narrative leave something to be desired. This time he's telling the inspiring tale of a real life African American debate team from a small college in 1935 that overcame social restrictions and personal dilemmas to achieve greatness in the national debate circuit, including several competitions that pitted them against the white colleges of the day.
A trio of talented on the rise actors portray the central team members with great skill and effervescence. Nate Parker is the charismatic but unreliable team leader, Henry Lowe, who has a passion for the seedy elements of society and a tendency to get himself into trouble. Jurnee Smollett is extremely charming as the determined and forthright, Samantha Booke, who seeks to make history as both an African American debater and a female in a male dominated field. And lastly, Denzel Whitaker is a perky, slightly goofy delight as James Farmer, the youngest and most openly emotional and optimistic of the contenders who is also competing with the high standards of his brilliant father (the like-named but unrelated Forest Whitaker). Denzel Washington also stars in the film as the debate team's coach, Mr. Tolson, an unconventional professor who takes an aggressive stance with his students and enforces the philosophy that words are weapons to be handled carefully and wielded dangerously. His other efforts in unionizing the local farmers and farmhands are also chronicled, mostly in mundane and tediously off course detail. Where The Great Debaters loses its steam is in its dalliances. While trying to be a comfortable yet assertive text it muddles any sort of political message it may have delivered. The film works best as a high-functioning formula vehicle that inspires when it's supposed to and leaves the enjoyable feeling of sweeping achievement sitting in your stomach. Its badly painted personal trials, including Tolson being accused of communist sympathies, James' father issues, and Samantha and Henry's ill-fated and uninteresting flirtation with romance, all stop the film's central narrative from truly catching fire. The central beat of the film is in constant conflict with these busy and unwelcome trangeants that cause it to falter much too often to really call it a satisfying film, but it is mostly solid and splendidly complacent in all the best ways. When it's in its element, it plays triumphantly, but elsewhere it sags and makes you impatient for the inevitable happy ending.