Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Great Debaters

It’s hard not to admire Denzel Washington. As an actor he shells one of the most commanding presences that the film industry has ever carried. As a director, he picks his projects carefully and with great, personal conviction. When he was trying to finance his latest film, The Great Debaters, the producers asked him, “You want to cast three unknowns as your leads?” and Washington replied, “How many 13-year-old, black actors do you know? Now we’ve got three.”

Washington doesn’t hesitate to cast himself as real life professor Melvin Tolson, who transformed his Wiley College debate team into a boldly mature force.
In its debating scenes, the film packs a real punch, much in part to Robert Eisele’s clever and convincing script. The young actors nail each of their moments of glory, perfecting the art of cadence.
But when the kids aren’t on the podium, the film comes off as an Oprah Winfrey Present’s Special, which is an authentic feeling, given that Winfrey is in fact a producer of the film.
Washington’s only other directorial effort was the masterful Antwone Fisher. What that film carried in heavy-handed determination, The Great Debaters comes off as more wishful thinking. But credit is due to Washington, who carries the film with his as-expected emotional ferocity, and gives three young actors a chance to shoot into stardom. B

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