Predictable but Sturdy
Nothing will likely surprise you about The Great Debaters, which features a sports movie plot as applied to the trials of a college debating team. The main concept point here is that it's an all-black team from Wiley College that rises to prominence when it eventually takes on an Ivy League contender.
Pairing this drama genre with a black history-related story makes the movie not unlike Pride earlier in the year, but The Great Debaters benefits from having more strong performances than just its central one of the coach (in this case, Denzel Washington as Mel Tolson). Particularly, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker (whose involvement must've been cosmically influenced, given that the movie also stars Washington and Forest Whitaker, neither of whom he's related to) both give appealing, charismatic turns as members of the squad. Unlike Pride's brute force approach to seeking racial equality, The Great Debaters argues that strength of mind and character will be the best tools to prepare for the struggle -- an idea much more appealing to general inspiration-seeking audiences.
This is Washington's second directorial effort, and he's showing a tendency to favor middlebrow drama with conflicted characters as presented in a classy, glossy package. It's not daring, but it's earnest. As an actor-director, he also focuses on performances, and the sum of these elements makes The Great Debaters a predictable but sturdy genre offering. (Capsule review)
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated "PG-13" by the MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com