I’ve never been a big fan of the teacher/coach-changes-his -students’-lives-magically genre of films because they usually take real life stories of genuine inspiration and apply such a saccharine sheen to them that they become nigh unrecognizable. And the framing of most of these with well-meaning whites helping unfortunate minorities has an unpleasant stench of condescension that makes it even harder to stomach. But if you must do these sorts of films, at least focus on the more cerebral aspects of student life so you can have a chance at doing a fresher take on the material.

Denzel Washington has done just that with what will be his second directorial effort, The Great Debaters. It’s the true story of Mel Tolson, a professor at HBCU (historically black college university) Wiley College in Texas in the 30’s. He inspires his students to form the first debate team in the history of the school. They eventually go on to compete in the nationals, where they did the unthinkable at the time by defeating Harvard’s team.

After my rant earlier this week about the choices some black auteurs were making, I’m rather relieved to see news of this flick. Denzel’s first effort, Antwone Fisher, showed he could take on real life stories of overcoming adversity without coming off too clichéd (even if the subplot involving his character’s marital troubles was the film’s biggest weak spot) or overblown. And that’s just the kind of light touch a story like this would need.

Also in talks to sign up is Columbus Short, a guy who’s risen from being a dancer and adulterer for pre-psychosis Britney Spears to doing some solid work on Studio 60. He’d, of course, be one of the students.