A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"The Great Debaters" is about an underdog debate team that wins a national championship, and some critics have complained that it follows the formula of all sports movies by leading up, through great adversity, to a victory at the end. So it does. How many sports movies, or movies about underdogs competing in any way, have you seen that end in defeat? It is human nature to seek inspiration in victory, and this is a film that is affirming and inspiring and re-creates the stories of a remarkable team and its coach.
The team is from little Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, a black institution in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s. The school's English professor, Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), is a taskmaster who demands the highest standards from his debate team, and they're rewarded with a national championship. That's what the "sports movie" is about, but the movie is about so much more, and in ways that do not follow formulas.
There are, for example, Tolson's secret lives. Wearing overalls and work boots, he ventures out incognito as an organizer for a national sharecropper's union. He's a dangerous radical, local whites believe: probably a communist. But he's organizing both poor whites and blacks, whose servitude is equal.
He keeps his politics out of the classroom, however, where he conceals a different kind of secret: He is one of America's leading poets. Although the movie barely touches on it, Tolson published long poems in such magazines as the Atlantic Monthly and in 1947 was actually named poet laureate of Liberia. Ironic, that his role as a debate coach would win him greater fame today.