Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett
Melvin: Jesus was a radical.
Dr. Farmer: Careful, careful!
Melvin: Yes he was, Jesus was a radical!
Dr. Farmer: Mental institutions are filled with people who have confused themselves with Jesus Christ!
Based on a true story set in 1935, Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a professor at Wiley College (in Texas) who leads a debate team up against the best black, and white, colleges in the nation. Tolson’s political views start to threaten the success of his team as the local sheriff tries to use that as an excuse to lock up Tolson, who he sees as a trouble maker. Meanwhile, the 4 students on the team face personal battles of their own.
It’s the Hoosiers of debate team movies, that’s what I kept thinking while watching this one. Though, since I can’t think of any other debate team movies, I guess this is the Godfather and Citizen Kane of debate team movies as well.
There’s a lot going on here, but the most interesting thing to me was to see these young black students try to gain respect from, first other larger black colleges, then from other colleges like Harvard, all while struggling with the feeling that all their work is never going to pay off in a world where they could be hung just for the color of their skin. I thought all the actors did a good job of getting those feelings across. You want to be able to tell them to not give up and keep working. Fortunately, from the notes before the final credits, it sounds like these students did keep working and achieved a lot in life.
Another good aspect of this movie is the few scenes between Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. My favorite scene in the movie is between the two of them when they discuss Jesus being a radical. I wish we could have seen more of them together, but they’re both good separately too.
Some of the characters are a little one-dimensional, like the sheriff, but for the most part, everyone involved is fleshed out well. Though not all the stories are handled as well. The romantic would-be triangle between 3 of the students comes and goes and then just fizzles out a little in the end, but it supplies some good moments when it’s still relevant.
It’s always easy to say that a movie about racism and the struggles involved with that is important to see, but in this case it’s probably true. Though, maybe more so for the lesson about not giving up on your dreams in the face of turmoil and obstacles. That’s a universal lesson that is relevant to everybody.
10 – 1 for a couple of characters that are too stereotyped – 1.1 for a couple storylines getting pushed aside – .2 for getting a little too Hoosiers-like at the end = 7.7