The Great Debaters

December 25th, 2007


The Great Debaters

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Still of Denzel Washington in The Great DebatersDenzel Washington in The Great DebatersJanine Turner at event of The Great DebatersStill of Denzel Washington in The Great DebatersStill of Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker in The Great DebatersStill of Jurnee Smollett, Jermaine Williams, Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker in The Great Debaters

A drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College Texas. In 1935, he inspired students to form the school's first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.

Release Year: 2007

Rating: 7.5/10 (21,579 voted)

Critic's Score: 65/100

Director: Denzel Washington

Stars: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise

Marshall, Texas, described by James Farmer, Jr. as "the last city to surrender after the Civil War," is home to Wiley College, where, in 1935-36, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and his clandestine work as a union organizer, Professor Melvin Tolson coaches the debate team to a nearly-undefeated season that sees the first debate between U.S. students from white and Negro colleges and ends with an invitation to face Harvard University's national champions. The team of four, which includes a female student and a very young James Farmer, is tested in a crucible heated by Jim Crow, sexism, a lynch mob, an arrest and near riot, a love affair, jealousy, and a national radio audience.

Writers: Robert Eisele, Robert Eisele

Denzel Washington - Melvin B. Tolson
Nate Parker - Henry Lowe
Jurnee Smollett - Samantha Booke
Denzel Whitaker - James Farmer Jr.
Jermaine Williams - Hamilton Burgess
Forest Whitaker - Dr. James Farmer Sr.
Gina Ravera - Ruth Tolson
John Heard - Sheriff Dozier
Kimberly Elise - Pearl Farmer
Devyn A. Tyler - Helen Farmer (as Devyn Tyler)
Trenton McClain Boyd - Nathaniel Farmer
Ritchie Montgomery - Deputy
Jackson Walker - Pig Owner
Tim Parati - Pig Farmer
Robert X. Golphin - Dunbar Reed

Taglines: When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope.


Official Website: The Weinstein Company [United States] |

Release Date: 25 December 2007

Filming Locations: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Box Office Details

Budget: $15,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend: $3,604,000 (USA) (23 December 2007) (1164 Screens)

Gross: $30,226,144 (USA) (13 April 2008)

Technical Specs


Did You Know?

The film features both Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, as well as a young actor named Denzel Whitaker.

Errors made by characters (possibly deliberate errors by the filmmakers): James Farmer Jr., in the last speech, argues that the fact that blacks were being lynching in the south was a reason that civil disobedience was an accurate answer to unjust laws. However, there was never a law stating that lynching was legal, so the lynchings that occurred were a form of civil disobedience by whites opposing pro-African-American laws that were passed. His argument was therefore a regressive one.

Melvin B. Tolson: Who is the judge?
Samantha/ Henry Lowe/ James Farmer Jr./ Hamilton Burgess: The judge is God.
Melvin B. Tolson: Why is he God?
Samantha/ Henry Lowe/ James Farmer Jr./ Hamilton Burgess: Because he decides who wins or loses. Not my opponeent.
Melvin B. Tolson: Who is your opponent?
Samantha/ Henry Lowe/ James Farmer Jr./ Hamilton Burgess: He does not exist.
Melvin B. Tolson: Why does he not exist?
Samantha/ Henry Lowe/ James Farmer Jr./ Hamilton Burgess: Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the truth I speak!

User Review

Exceptional Film, Extremely Talented Cast

Rating: 10/10

Although "The Great Debaters" does not open until Christmas, I had the good fortune of seeing it at a preview -- and I can recommend it without reservation. It is a great story, based on real events that most of us never heard of, about a debating team from Wiley College, a small black institution in rural Texas, that performs extraordinary feats because the kids are good and the team is taught by Mel Tolson, a real person, acted by Denzel Washington, who also directs. Forest Whitaker, like Washington an academy award winner, plays James Farmer Sr., the school president and the father of one of the debaters, James Farmer Jr. (yes, that James Farmer Jr.). The participation in this enterprise of Washington, Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and the Weinstein brothers should draw crowds (provided the film isn't cursed by being described as "uplifting," though it is). The revelation in this film are the performances of the three principal debaters: Jurnee Smollett as Samatha Booke (with an "e", as she proclaims when she tries out for the debate team), Nate Parker as Henry Lowe (also with an "e" as he announces in response to Samantha's declaration) and Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr. (It's an amusing coincidence, but he is unrelated either to Denzel Washington or to Forrest Whitaker.) You may have seen Jurnee Smollett earlier in her career when she was a "cute kid" and a promising actress. This film could be her portal to stardom. In addition to being a gorgeous young woman, she's also an accomplished actress, ready for bigger parts in the future. You'll also be impressed with her colleagues, people whose names you may never have heard. You don't have to be black to find this film engrossing; I'm not. All you need to be is (a) a human being and (b) someone who appreciates a good movie. I hope it makes a ton of money at the box office but it is, above all, a quality film. It just happens to be about a difficult period in American history, the rural South in the 1930's. It just happens to be inspirational and uplifting and all that good, boring stuff that cause your eyes to roll when that's how the critics describe it. But it's better than uplifting. It's GOOD and it's REAL.


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