It is 1935, and at a small Negro college in Texas, Professor Tolson (Denzel Washington) is coaching the debate team. Its members include a sweet girl, a ladies' man, and a 14-year old whiz-kid. The students blossom under Tolson's leadership, but his extra-curricular activities may be a problem; at night he is secretly unionizing the share croppers, and the sheriff doesn't like it one bit.
I never expected a movie about a debate team to be intense, scary, or exhilarating, but "The Great Debaters" is all that and more. There are two stories here - one is the debate team and the other is life under segregation; both stories are compelling. The acting is uniformly outstanding; Forrest Whitaker and Washington support some lesser-known, but extremely talented young stars. We get to know their characters and care about them as they overcome their various obstacles to become the top Negro college debate team in the country.
The injustices of segregation are vividly and heartbreakingly portrayed; it was quite a sobering look at the legalized cruelty of that time and place. The fact that this is a true story makes it all the more inspiring. Heartily recommended.