Directed by (and starring) Denzel Washington, "The Great Debaters" is - at first glance - a play for an Oscar or two. The picture is the kind of uplifting, inspirational drama that is included in some way during the Oscars each year. However, in this case, the picture does genuinely earn its emotional moments and does have us rooting for the characters.
The picture takes place in the '30's and focuses on the students at Wiley College, where professor Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington) has just started a debate team, which he intends to teach and mold then take them to face off against other African-American colleges. Recruits include the gifted 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), pretty Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett) and Henry Lowe (Nate Parker).
The picture follows the members of the debate team as they prepare and face off against other colleges, racking up an incredible track record as they progress towards a major debate with Harvard. The film also explores the obstacles and racial injustice the team members face in their daily lives, as well as Tolson's attempts to organize local labor, which results in some anger among members of the local townsfolk, such as the racist sheriff (John Heard).
Another thread follows the feelings that James has for Samantha, but she's more interested in Henry. This element of the plot could have been left aside or lessened in order to tighten and focus the film, as the romantic aspect really remains the least interesting piece in a film with a lot going on.
The performances in the film are terrific, but the score by James Newton Howard does push matters a little bit. The actors all deliver moving performances - especially both Forest and Denzel Whitaker (son of Forest), as well as Washington - but Howard's score does try to tug unnecessarily at the heartstrings during the film's Big Emotional Moments. Technically, this is an otherwise solid picture, with rich cinematography and fine production design and costume work.
Overall, "Great Debaters" tells a moving and inspirational true story and offers some great performances. It could have been a little tighter and less reliant on manipulation during the more emotional moments, but this is still a solid effort from all involved.
VIDEO: "Great Debaters" is presented by Genius/Weinstein Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a satisfactory presentation of the film, as while the picture never appeared crystal clear, it at least offered clarity and detail that were consistently adequate. Otherwise, the main negative was a few instances of mild edge enhancement. The presentation also showed some minor specks on the print and a few traces of pixelation. The picture's warm, rich color palette looked quite good, with nice saturation and no smearing.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly fine, with the surrounds only occasionally called upon to deliver reinforcement of the score or some minor ambience. Audio quality was pleasing, as speech remained crisp and clear.
EXTRAS: A few deleted scenes are included on the first disc, and while most deleted scene sections offer material that was rightly deleted, there are actually a couple of powerful moments here that work quite well. We also get "Great Debaters: A Historical Perspective", a look at the true history behind the picture, which opens with a discussion by Oprah Winfrey and includes some fascinating interviews with Wiley College students who went there at the time. The extras on the first disc conclude with a trailer, a pair of music videos and promos for other titles from the studio.
The second disc provides a series of additional featurettes: "The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson", "The Production Design of David Bomba", "The 1930's Wardrobe of Sharen Davis", "A New Generation of Actors", "Forest Whitaker on Becoming James Farmer, Jr.", "Learning the Art: Young Actors Go to Debate Camp", "Scoring with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub" and "The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music".
Final Thoughts:Overall, "Great Debaters" tells a moving and inspirational true story and offers some great performances. It could have been a little tighter and less reliant on manipulation during the more emotional moments, but this is still a solid effort from all involved. The DVD edition boasts quite a few extras, but audio/video quality is just about standard. Recommended.
The Film B+