Unapologetically old-school, in both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the term, Debaters overlays the story of social underdogs onto the familiar template of the stand-and-deliver saga, the staple of sports inspirationals like Rocky, Invincible and The Karate Kid.
Washington, who previously starred in and directed the underappreciated Antwone Fisher, takes this by-now threadbare form and reweaves it with rich, vintage strands. It doesn't hurt that the film is photographed by Philippe Rousselot, whose suggestive lighting makes cottages look like castles.
In a role 180 degrees removed from that of American Gangster's Frank Lucas, Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, real-life poet, professor and stealth activist (and Lincoln University graduate, Class of 1924). Tolson pursued all three vocations in the Jim Crow South, when African Americans were called coloreds.
By night Tolson dons raggedy overalls in the hopes of unifying and unionizing black and white sharecroppers. By day, he dons suits to teach at Wiley, in Marshall, Texas, where he coaches the debate team. Tolson believes that the best weapons he can give students in the struggle for racial equality are logic and persuasion.
By helping them refine their arguments, Tolson helps them articulate their values, effectively preparing these students of the 1930s to lead the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Charismatic as a preacher, tough as a drill sergeant, Tolson auditions candidates for the team before settling on the final four.
There's Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), silver-tongued ladies' man. And Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), serious plodder.
Also James Farmer Jr. (yes, that James Farmer Jr., founder of the Congress of Racial Equality), the 14-year-old son of Senior (Forest Whitaker). Junior is played, with brio, by Denzel Whitaker, no relation to either actor, but a charmer. Rounding out the quartet is Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the plucky beauty beloved by all three teammates. Washington elicits nuanced performances from them all.
Working from the script by Robert Eisele, the actor/filmmaker directs Debaters as if it were an action movie. Not only must the debaters go up against the competition, but they must also run an obstacle race just to get to the debating podium.
Washington palpably depicts the walking-on-eggshells tension of blacks in white communities. And he offers a shattering glimpse of a lynching that nearly deters the squad from continuing on.
"The state currently spends five times more to educate a white child than it does to educate a colored child," Samantha says during one contest that speaks as much to disparities in educational funding today as it does to 1935's.
Washington succeeds in making debating as enthralling as contact sports. And it is in such exchanges that The Great Debaters soars, persuading us that the word is indeed mightier than the sword.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/