The Great Debaters is a movie that is good for you; like the books recommended by Oprah Winfrey (who is one of the producers of the movie.) Like the books Winfrey recommends, the fact that the movie is good for you does not necessarily mean that it is not also entertaining, but it probably would not be playing at the multiplex near you did it not have the star power of Winfrey and Denzel Washington, the director as well as the lead actor, associated with it.
The movie tells the more or less true story of the debate team at all-black Wiley College in Texas in the 1930s. Washington plays the role of Melvin Tolson, the English professor, who coached the debate team to a record of no losses over a period of 10 years, with very demanding coaching. James Farmer, Jr., who went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and become a leader in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was a 14-year-old member of the debate team. After beating all the other black colleges in the southwest, Wiley took on The University of Oklahoma City in 1930, in the first interracial debate in the South. An interesting article on the actual history behind the movie can be found in this article in the Marshal (Texas) News-Messenger, found here.
The movie left my Korean-born daughter-in-law, in this country for just six months, asking a lot of questions. "Did they really not allow blacks to attend certain colleges?" "Why wouldn't white colleges debate black colleges?" "Did they lynch blacks?" "Why?" It was hard for her to conceive of the racism that our country took for granted until so recently. The movie was good for giving her a more detailed picture of the great country that she loves so much.
The movie takes a little liberty with the actual facts, concluding with a climactic debate against Harvard College, that was actually against the University of Southern California. It skillfully pulls the heartstrings, and I had a lump in my throat at the end.
Not to damn with faint praise, but I did not leave the theater thinking the movie is groundbreaking, or should be in line for any big awards. It was good for me, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies. For that, I award it four stars.