The Great Debaters
In 1930s Texas, Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington, also directing), an activist English professor at all-black Wiley College, builds a stellar debate team that eventually takes on national champion Harvard. Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro’s script takes liberties with history (in real life it was USC, not Harvard) and spins it wheels for the first half-hour or so, but once it gets traction it builds considerable power. The movie taps into our traditional sympathy for a righteous underdog, and has the strength of passion for a neglected heritage. Director Washington gets good work from a strong ensemble cast (Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Jermaine Williams, Kimberly Elise, John Heard), but he can’t resist reminding us who’s the star with an unexplained vanity walk-on in the last scene.