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The Great Debaters

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United States

The Great Debaters movie poster

Release date
December 25, 2007 (2007-12-25)

The great debaters trailer

The Great Debaters is a 2007 American biographical drama film directed by and starring Denzel Washington. It is based on an article written about the Wiley College debate team by Tony Scherman for the spring 1997 issue of American Legacy.


The Great Debaters movie scenes The Great Debaters 2007

The film co-stars Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Gina Ravera, Jermaine Williams and Jurnee Smollett. The screenplay was written by Robert Eisele. The film was released in theaters on December 25, 2007.

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Based on a true story, the plot revolves around the efforts of debate coach Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) at Wiley College, a Historically Black College, to place his team on equal footing with whites in the American South during the 1930s, when Jim Crow laws were common and lynch mobs were a pervasive fear for blacks. In the movie, the Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University. This was their 47th annual debate team.

The movie also explores the social constructs in Texas during the Great Depression including not only the day-to-day insults and slights African Americans endured, but also a lynching. Also depicted is James L. Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), who, at 14 years old, was on Wiley's debate team after completing high school (and who later went on to co-found C.O.R.E., the Congress of Racial Equality). According to the Houston Chronicle, another character depicted on the team, Samantha Booke, is based on the real individual Henrietta Bell Wells, the only female member of the 1930 debate team from Wiley College who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States. Wells also happened to be a minor African American poet whose papers are housed at the Library of Congress.

The key line of dialogue, used several times, is a famous paraphrase of Augustine of Hippo: "An unjust law is no law at all."

Another major line, repeated in slightly different versions according to context, concerns doing what you "have to do" in order that we "can do" what we "want to do." In all instances, these vital lines are spoken by the James L. Farmer Sr. and James L. Farmer, Jr. characters.

Historical background

The film depicts the Wiley Debate team beating Harvard College in the 1930s. They did not debate Harvard, however. The debate depicted in the film instead mirrored the match up between Wiley and the University of Southern California, who at the time were the reigning debating champions. Wiley College did indeed win this matchup. According to Robert Eisele: "In that era, there was much at stake when a black college debated any white school, particularly one with the stature of Harvard. We used Harvard to demonstrate the heights they achieved."

The film omits another reality: even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they were not truly considered to belong to the debate society; blacks were not admitted until after World War II.


  • Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson
  • Forest Whitaker as James L. Farmer, Sr.
  • Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest) as James L. Farmer, Jr.
  • Nate Parker as Henry Lowe
  • Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke
  • Jermaine Williams as Hamilton Burgess
  • Gina Ravera as Ruth Tolson
  • John Heard as Sheriff Dozier
  • Kimberly Elise as Pearl Farmer
  • Devyn A. Tyler as Helen Farmer
  • Trenton McClain Boyd as Nathaniel Farmer
  • Jackson Walker as Pig Owner
  • Tim Parati as Pig Farmer
  • Justice Leak as Harland Osbourne
  • Robert X. Golphin as Dunbar Reed
  • Damien Leake as Wilson
  • Frank L. Ridley as Security Guard
  • Production

    The film was the first since 1979 to be allowed to film on Harvard's campus.

    Box office

    The Great Debaters debuted at No. 11 in its first weekend with a total of $6,005,180 from 1,171 venues. The film grossed $30,236,407 in the US.

    Critical response

    As of November 20, 2012 the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 79% of critics gave the film positive reviews based on 131 reviews. The consensus reads: "A wonderful cast and top-notch script elevate The Great Debaters beyond a familiar formula for a touching, uplifting drama." Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 65 out of 100 based on 32 reviews.

    Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer named it the 5th best film of 2007 and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times named it the 9th best film of 2007.

    Some critics have criticized the film for "playing it safe." John Monaghan of the Detroit Free Press stated, "Serious moviegoers, especially those attracted by the movie's aggressive Oscar campaign, will likely find the package gorgeously wrapped, but intellectually empty."


  • Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
  • Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture: Denzel Washington
  • Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture: Jurnee Smollett
  • Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker
  • Stanley Kramer Award
  • Nominations

  • Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Image Award for Outstanding Director in a Motion Picture: Denzel Washington
  • Golden Reel Award for Best Music Sound Editing in a Feature Film
  • Urban debate leagues

    The release of the film coincided with a nationally stepped-up effort by urban debate leagues to get hundreds of inner-city and financially challenged schools to establish debate programs. Cities of focus included Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

    Denzel Washington's donation

    On December 19, 2007, Denzel Washington announced a $1 million donation to Wiley College so they could re-establish their debate team. June 2007, after completing filming at Central High School, Grand Cane, Louisiana, Washington donated $10,000 to Central High School.

    DVD release

    The Great Debaters was released on DVD on May 13, 2008 on 1-disc and 2-disc editions. In the 2-disc edition, the first disc includes no extra material, but the second disc includes an audio commentary, a making of documentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and a still gallery.

    Soundtrack and score

    The songs for the soundtrack to the film were hand-picked by Denzel Washington from over 1000 candidates. It contains remakes of traditional blues and Gospel songs from the 1920s and 1930s by artists including Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart, David Berger, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It features favorites, such as "Step It Up and Go," "Nobody's Fault But Mine," and the Duke Ellington classic, "Delta Serenade." Varèse Sarabande released a separate album of the film's score, composed by James Newton Howard and Peter Golub.

    The complete soundtrack album includes the following songs:

    Track listing

    1. "My Soul is a Witness" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & Sharon Jones
    2. "That's What My Baby Likes" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart & Teenie Hodges
    3. "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You" – The Carolina Chocolate Drops & Alvin "Youngblood" Hart
    4. "Step It Up and Go" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & Teenie Hodges
    5. "It's Tight Like That" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart & Teenie Hodges
    6. "Busy Bootin'" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
    7. "City of Refuge" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
    8. "Two Wings" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
    9. "Delta Serenade" – David Berger & The Sultans of Swing
    10. "Rock n' Rye" – David Berger & The Sultans of Swing
    11. "Wild About That Thing" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart, & Teenie Hodges
    12. "Nobody's Fault but Mine" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
    13. "How Long Before I Change My Clothes" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart
    14. "We Shall Not Be Moved" – Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
    15. "Up Above My Head" – Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
    16. "The Shout" – Art Tatum
    17. "Begrüssung" – Marian Anderson


    The Great Debaters Wikipedia

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