With academy award winners Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker carrying out an effective script by Robert Eisele this drama about ethnic injustice and words has it all.
Director Denzel Washington introduces a Texas town in two locations. Initially through a swamp into a hot dance floor in the woods and them quickly to Preacher Dr. James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) who preaches self control and a high level of morality both to his congregation and to his son, James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). He's not related to either of the stars.
At the dance Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) knows his way around and as a student at Wilet College he is invited to join the debate team under the direction of Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington). Other members of the future great team are: Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett) and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker).
While the creative teaching of Professor Tolson reminds us of past films with challenges for underdogs, the tension over a dead pig with Deliverance like characters (Jackson Walker and Tim Parati) reminds us of the world these scholars live in.
Not just a debate and ethnic tension, romance and longing exist between the four. Farmer, Jr. is clearly drawn to Samantha but just after she asks him to sign her dance card at a school gathering, she leaves for a dance filled with "black music," with the more worldly Henry Lowe.
Melvin Tolson (Washington) is also an undercover agitator for unions and he must face Sheriff Dozier (John Heard) who is not above beating and destroying both black and white union organizers. Later a burning and hanging are witnessed by the debaters.
The debates range from un-employment insurance to civil disobedience and as The Great Debaters begin to win their record shows up in a local barber shop; 3-0 then 8-0. But shoes betray an affair which harms the important relationship of the four debaters.
There is contrast between a place of academic learning, which is filled with opulence and words, and the harshly balanced outside world. Throughout director Denzel Washington keeps a level of tension that holds us in its grip. Washington forces his way to excellence as the teacher and as the director.
The Great Debaters demands our attention for its courage and conviction, not just because of the winning team but for the performances, direction and the script.