The new movie starring and directed by Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters, is a stirring, heartfelt depiction of the struggles of the esteemed poet Melvin Tolson and his students (the ones at his college's debate team) at Wiley College during the mid-1930s. In lesser hands, this fictionalized account of the trials of the teacher and his charges could have been boring, but the fine performances of veterans like Washington and (Forest) Whitaker are as affecting as the stellar turns by the younger actors Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either Mr. Washington or the other Mr. Whitaker), Jurnee Smollett (best known for her work in Eve's Bayou), and Nate Parker.
Three of the younger actors were at a (packed!) screening of the film at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC this past Sunday, answering questions from the audience after the screening. Applause broke out several times during the movie, as well as after (most often after one of Ms. Smollett's scenes). The youngest actor, Denzel Whitaker, portrayed a young James Farmer, Jr., a few years before he founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the other debaters portrayed were composites of other people. While there were a few liberties taken to make it based on a true story, and the mention of the anachronistic Willie Lynch (hoax) could have been left out, it was otherwise a fine rendering of conditions during the Great Depression, and how it afflicted the nation, especially black Americans.
Although the screening was free, I intend to pay to see it a second time! The Great Debaters opens on Christmas day.
* * *
Although I was intrigued by Denzel Washington's performance as Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster, I prefer his performance in The Great Debaters; however, I would not be surprised to see him nominated for either movie.