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Debating the Merits of the Underdog Movie Formula

The Great Debaters, a new movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington, is based on little-known but true events. In 1935, Wiley College, a small historically black college in Marshall, Texas, fielded a debate team that did so well in match-ups with other black schools, it was invited to do something almost unthinkable in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation: debate a team from a white college.

The Wiley team was led by Professor Melvin B. Tolson. As played by Washington, he is simultaneously a rebel who inspires his students and a bit of a saint. He organizes sharecroppers (both black and white) so they won't be exploited by landowners, hangs around juke joints to make sure brawls don't become murders and takes troubled students under his protective wing — asking the more combative ones to try out for the debate team.

At the tryouts, Tolson refers to debate as a "blood-sport," a broad hint about where the picture is headed. He is, after all, a fiercely competitive coach, with an underdog team made up of rookies. You know the rest of that formula, right? Before they get to the big match, Wiley's debaters will experience fumbles in logic, rhetorical end-runs and a couple of argumentative Hail Mary's, as they exercise their minds — all thoroughly admirable and a trifle overdone.

Opposite Washington's firebrand, Forrest Whitaker's more devout character, James Farmer Sr., is a moderating, Martin Luther King-like presence, even getting involved in a street march.

Farmer's son, played by the young Denzel Whitaker (who is not related to either of his costars, despite the coincidental name overlap), grew up to be a celebrated civil rights leader, and the film trails him as he witnesses a disturbing array of brutality, including a harrowing lynching.

In short, there is a lot of history up there on screen, but there's also a good deal of fictionalizing — composite characters, debate topics that are excessively on-point, even some inflation regarding Wiley's big showdown, which in real life was with the University of Southern California, not Harvard.

Does this diminish the film? Well, that's, debatable I suppose. Certainly it makes The Great Debaters an unreliable witness to history. But formulas become formulaic because they work, and in Hollywood terms, this one works ... well enough.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.