RATING |

IF I WERE a debater arguing the negative, I'd say "The Great Debaters" is a story of intellectual rigor that relies too much on emotional persuasion.

But the heck with that - there's so much to like in Denzel Washington's new movie, it's easier to accentuate the positive.

Washington is the star and director of "Debaters," built around the true story of a debate team from tiny Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, that barnstormed its way through the black-university circuit to earn a shot at Harvard.

Washington has cast himself as the tough-love debate team coach, who prods, pushes and inspires a quartet of talented undergrads, ensuring they have not just the brains but the toughness to navigate the economic and social hazards of Depression-era, Jim Crow America.

These early scenes of academic hardball have a "Paper Chase" dynamic to them, and give the movie a time-and-place uniqueness that keeps it highly watchable.

Life-of-the-mind characters are unfortunately rare in African-American film, and it's particularly jolting to find them in a period story. These are richly drawn - they are so convincingly fluent in Western classics that they matter-of-factly reference Thoreau to prove a point about civil disobedience.

Any suggestion that such fluency makes them overly assimilated is made to seem ridiculous - these are the future leaders of the coming civil-rights movement, able to use the transcendentalists or Enlightenment philosophers to remind America how it has failed to realize ideals of social justice.

One of the debaters, in fact, is James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who inherits a love of books from his minister father (Forest Whitaker). Young Denzel is a naturally likable performer, and an uncanny physical match for his dad - casting that gives the movie emotional credibility.

He's the youngest debater, and the story straps him with a crush on the team's pretty female member (Jurnee Smollett), who in turn has fallen for Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a handsome firebrand whose task is to learn how to control and channel his anger.

"The Great Debaters" gets a little busy with subplots - Washington, as Melvin B. Tolson, is a labor activist whose activities as an organizer threaten to disrupt the team when he attracts the attention of a racist, union-busting sheriff (John Heard).

The movie regains its footing, though, as the team rides debate-circuit success to a possible showdown with Harvard.

Washington is a good director ("Antwone Fisher"), of the sort the acting ranks often produce: He knows how to get a good performance, even if the narrative moves fitfully. He gets great work here from appealing young actors, and allows character-development to play into the emotion of the final scene.

Washington makes an unnecessary appearance, probably figuring that the audience expects to see its biggest box-office draw. And when you're playing with Oprah's money, you don't take chances. *

Produced by Oprah Winfrey, Todd Black, Kate Forte, Joe Roth; directed by Denzel Washington; written by Robert Eisele; music by James Newton Howard; distributed by the Weinstein Co.