The Great Debaters is a well acted and respectable drama which doesn’t soar as high as it could, but is none the less enjoyable with good intentions.

The Film

rating: 3

Hollywood loves a good inspirational drama......especially ones with a sporting theme. Just recently films like Oscar winners The Blind Side and The Fighter, or Clint Eastwood€™s Invictus, have used sport as a uniting theme for defying the odds. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters follows this tradition but with a completely different kind of sport - one with a far loftier background than American Football or Boxing. It€™s the academic sport of debating, with Washington€™s real life coach Melvin B.Tolson leading a team of college students to become the greatest university debate team in the country. It€™s no simple task however, as the team is made up of African-American students in 1930€™s depression struck America - deep in the midst of racial segregation. The passion and drive of Tolson and his debate team is not simply to be the best - but to be accepted as equal and pave the way for a change in attitudes towards racial equality. Based on a true story, Tolson and his Wiley College team went on to beat many exclusively white colleges and universities, with a fictionalized debate at Harvard forming the epic showdown as expected in these kind of films. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, the film seems to have aimed high for Oscar glory but somehow stumbled along the way failing to receive the expected recognition. The film was still well received by U.S critics and made a reasonable return at the box-office. For some reason though, here in the U.K it makes its debut some four years after its US theatrical release - direct to DVD. Undeserving of such treatment but far from spectacular, the film is an enjoyable and well made drama, but one that fails to give its audience anything they€™ve not seen hundreds of times in similar stories of uplifting adversity. While all the elements are here for a rousing movie which digs deep into issues of racial equality whilst delivering an engrossing against-the-odds story, it never quite manages to break out of a distinctly average feel. It€™s a relaxing way to spend a couple of hours - feeling like a good quality TV drama that€™s admirably concerned with building character and mood over cinematic flair. That€™s not to say Washington€™s direction isn't good. He manages to keep the story and characters engrossing with some interesting directorial flourishes, including a abrupt opening which throws us into the story and setting through music and montage. Perhaps it just needed some more of these creative sparks to force it outside of its overly familiar genre clich這s. The ending for example, aims for inspirational greatness but feels half-hearted and abrupt. Mostly though, the problems of the film aren€™t so much at fault of the filmmakers but the superior quality of the movies which it aspires to sit alongside such as Dead Poets Society. A glimpse at the previous work of scriptwriter Robert Earl unearths ties to Darkman 2: The Return Of Durant and The Birds II: Land€™s End. Clearly, The Great Debaters isn€™t anywhere near as awful as those two monstrosities from the depths of straight-to-video hell, but it€™s a script which often meanders and fails to bring out the conviction of the story as well as it could. Thankfully, the enjoyable if flawed film is supported by some superb acting, with Denzel Washington managing to be overshadowed by his very own cast. The always reliable Forest Whittaker gives gravitas to his role as influential professor James L. Farmer, but even more impressive is the performance of 21 year old Denzel Whitaker€™s as Farmer€™s son who becomes one of Wiley€™s youngest but greatest debaters. Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and John Heard are also notably excellent in a film full of convincing and heartfelt performances. Extras My review copy was merely the film itself, which sadly appears to be the case with the retail release as well. Whereas the U.S received a 2 disk edition which delved deeper into the historical background of Wiley€™s debaters, all we get is the movie. A definite cause for debate. SummaryThe Great Debaters is a well acted and respectable drama which doesn€™t soar as high as it could, but is none the less enjoyable with good intentions - portraying adversity and courage during an ugly moment of American history. The Great Debaters is available now on DVD

Cult horror enthusiast and obsessive videogame fanatic. Stephen considers Jaws to be the single greatest film of all-time and is still pining over the demise of Sega's Dreamcast. As well regularly writing articles for WhatCulture, Stephen also contributes reviews and features to Ginx TV.