The rules of formal debate are clear. Avoid emotional appeals. Empty rhetoric will cost you. Stick to the facts. Destroy your opponents’ arguments with sustained, reasoned attacks. The rules of The Great Debaters are also fixed. If you must clap, clap extremely slowly, with tears rimming your eyes. Have your inspirational coach (Washington, also behind the camera) ladle out tough love, while also teaching his eager students to overcome 1930s Texas racism with their beautiful minds. Have this teacher observe their final victory from a balcony, quaking with pride. Have it be at Harvard. (In real life, it was the University of Southern California.)
The story of Wiley College’s national triumph under the real Melvin B. Tolson fits the Oprah mold snugly; her company is a producer. And while it would be unseemly to fully reject a movie this well-meaning, you wish it had more faith in the intellect of its viewers. It calls out for a thornier director, one who might have made an ironic meal out of the phony wars of words hiding deeper resentments. Forest Whitaker shows up as a stern, righteous scholar; though he never gets the chance, you know he could eat these cute debaters for breakfast.