Unapologetically old school, “The Great Debaters” is a fact-based tale of school spirit and underdog uplift that follows the outlines of the genre competently — sometimes compellingly — with one twist. Unlike the usual settings for stories of this sort — the basketball court or football field — this one takes place in study halls and behind podiums.
Denzel Washington directs and stars as Mel Tompkins, the poet and educator who in the 1930s was forensics coach for Wiley College, a small, historically black school in East Texas. For the 1935 team he selects studious Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), headstrong Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and, as alternates, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker).
Determined to inspire his students beyond their own aspirations, Tompkins molds them into eloquent orators prepared to hold their own in arguments against teams from far larger universities. Wiley’s team not only prevails against white schools, but it goes on to debate Harvard.
Washington’s charisma is on full display, and he makes Tompkins a figure of remarkable courage. At a time when lynching was not uncommon, he worked to organize tenant farmers while encouraging his students to dream beyond the Jim Crow restrictions they faced every day. His direction is straightforward and workmanlike, and the story is inspirational enough in its own right not to need any groundbreaking flourishes. “The Great Debaters” isn’t A-plus work, but it’s well above a gentleman’s C.