Who's in It:
Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Kimberly Elise, John Heard
The Basics: In 1935, Texas's all-African American Wiley College groomed a championship debate team that successfully trounced all the white colleges they encountered. In this film version, they rise in the ranks until they're finally allowed to take on Harvard's debate team (not exactly what happened, but you can play fast and loose when you're simply "based" on a true story). And you don't have to be a whip-smart debate-team member to figure out what happens in this by-the-numbers inspirational drama, one that's been polished to a handsome, impeccably well-mannered sheen by producer and Queen of All Media Oprah W.
What's the Deal? It's predictable. Denzel Washington has zero personality as a director. You know what's around every corner. You know what every white character is going to say to every black character. You know that a lot of the debates are going to involve Jim Crow-era black people arguing for justice and for their own humanity. You know it's engineered to make you weep. You know how it's going to end. There are no surprises. And therefore it's technically not a good movie. But if you go see the Rolling Stones you also know they're going to sing "Satisfaction." And you're happy anyway. That's how this movie works. Tell yourself you won't choke up. You'll be telling yourself a lie.
Breakout Stars: Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and young Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either of the other stars, although he was named after Washington). Smollett, especially in her debate scenes, becomes the most fiery lady-preacher you'd ever have the pleasure of hearing spin herself into a word frenzy.
How It Really Went Down: They debated USC, not Harvard. (The idea of Harvard, however, is TV and movie shorthand for "fancy" and "smart.") Also, due to racist laws and customs of the time, even though they won, they weren't allowed to claim the victory, because college debate societies didn't allow blacks to participate until after World War II.
Real Life Imitating Art: Expect Oprah, who's always banging the education drum and really, good for her on that one, because politicians never care about it to also get behind the Urban Debate League's current synergistic efforts to start debate teams in urban schools with large numbers of African-American students.