As with Hillary Swank's recent, largely overlooked Freedom Writers, The Great Debaters is a based-on-a-true-story film about a selfless teacher who changes the lives of his students through the good old-fashioned values of perseverance and hard work. As did Freedom Writers, Debaters has its fair share of eye-rollingly contrived moments—but it's also surprisingly clear-headed when it comes to the historical reality of its material.
Director Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a professor at Texas' all-black Wiley College who leads his debate team to victory over Harvard. Washington's fiery Tolson is an educated black man, a union organizer, and a communist sympathizer, and no punches are pulled in depicting just how poorly those attributes went over in the Jim Crow South. Instead, the velvet gloves are reserved for Tolson's debate team, which features the obligatory chubby kid, the obligatory pretty girl, and the obligatory rebel. These kids go through a lot to become the country's top debate team, and even though you know how it's going to end, you'd have to be a real A-hole not to root for them anyway.
There's a lot here about institutionalized racism and the ways in which violence and humiliation are systematically employed to keep people afraid, and it's all packaged up in a nice sentimental package, with a few fat-kid-makes-good and pretty-girl-gets-laid subplots for good measure. Ultimately, The Great Debaters is a harmless film that might lure an audience member or two into thinking more deeply about our country's history of racism. And that's all to the good, isn't it?