When you think of the classic 'sports movie' formula, you probably run through your favorite baseball or football movies, but make no mistake: Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters is every bit the sports flick that Hoosiers, The Natural and Remember the Titans are. It's only the extra-curriculars that have changed. Whether or not that's a good thing is entirely up to you, but if you're a big fan of totally predictable yet effectively entertaining "competition" movies, then there's very little chance you won't dig what's offered here. And even if you find the screenplay to be the pinnacle of all things obvious, the performances are still pretty excellent.
Plus, hell, if cheerleading is a sport, then so is debate.
Denzel Washington (directing his second film after 2002's Antwone Fisher) does a reliably excellent job of elevating basic material -- when he's on the screen, anyway; his character here is Melvin B. Tolson, debating coach for a black Texas college. The year is 1935, the civil rights movement is just starting to gain (a little) traction, and Tolson (despite being an unquestionably dedicated educator) is in big trouble thanks to his "questionable" politics.
The latest debate team for Wiley College is a broadly interesting one: the soft-spoken girl, the passionate hunk, the youthful prodigy, and ... the chubby one. Again, it's a good thing this movie has such a strong cast. Each of the young actors do exceedingly fine work with some fairly one-note roles. As the angry yet powerfully articulate Henry Lowe, Nate Parker is particularly excellent, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more movies from him in the future.