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The Great Debaters (2007)

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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.



(screenplay), (story) | 2 more credits »
3,015 ( 97)
Nominated for 1 Golden Globe. Another 11 wins & 9 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Henry Lowe
Samantha Booke (as Jurnee Smollett)
James Farmer Jr.
Hamilton Burgess
Dr. James Farmer Sr.
Ruth Tolson
Sheriff Dozier
Pearl Farmer
Helen Farmer (as Devyn Tyler)
Trenton McClain Boyd ...
Nathaniel Farmer
Pig Owner
Pig Farmer
Dunbar Reed


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. Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


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

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

25 December 2007 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Debate Pela Liberdade  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$15,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend:

$3,604,000 (USA) (21 December 2007)


$30,226,144 (USA) (11 April 2008)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

| |



Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
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Did You Know?


This movie was the first since 1979 to be allowed to film on Harvard's campus. See more »


When Prof. Tolson lectures his students about the origin of the word "lynching," he refers to the Willie Lynch Letter or Willie Lynch Speech, which are generally considered modern-day hoaxes. There is no historical or archival record of either before the 1990s, when they first appeared on the Internet. No 1930s professor could have cited them. See more »


Melvin B. Tolson: I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind.
See more »


Referenced in Jeopardy!: The IBM Challenge: Day 3 (2011) See more »


Performed by Marian Anderson
Public Domain
Courtesy of BMG Classics
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User Reviews

Exceptional Film, Extremely Talented Cast
17 December 2007 | by (Washington, D.C.) – See all my reviews

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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Message Boards

Recent Posts
These are the kind of black movies... Ozyre Cekda
Anyone else notice a slightly Communist/Socialist slant to the film? g_wales
Great movie, but large mistake made at the end... Metfan2987
The story is a lie jonathanlerner111
The lynch scene rujivachirapong
I still have to bring it up, No Country for Old Men???? dafranchise692001
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