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The Great Debaters (2007)

PG-13  |   |  Biography, Drama  |  25 December 2007 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.6/10 from 45,721 users   Metascore: 65/100
Reviews: 116 user | 112 critic | 32 from Metacritic.com

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 »
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Nominated for 1 Golden Globe. Another 10 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.


Biography | Drama

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
See  »

Did You Know?


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


In 1935, Marshall, Texas, was major rail center, not a one-track whistle stop. See more »


Samantha: James, you know I value your friendship...
James Farmer Jr.: How can you value something you never had?
Samantha: So... we were never friends?
James Farmer Jr.: Maybe I don't want to be just your friend. Maybe it HURTS me to be just your friend!
See more »


Referenced in Youth in Revolt (2009) See more »


When the Saints Come Marching In
Performed by the Grambling State University Marching Band Quartet
Produced by G. Marq Roswell
See more »

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User Reviews

The Beginning of Civil Rights Legislation
31 December 2007 | by (15th Row Orchestra) – See all my reviews

Of course the title deals with debating but it goes far deeper than that. Forest Whitaker, playing a true academician in every sense of the word, has both a precocious and gifted 14 year old son played by the brilliant Denzel Whitaker,no relation, and that son is none other than James Farmer Jr.,whom 7 years later becomes the founder of C.O.R.E., the Congress on Racial Equality. Thus began the beginning of the end of segregation as well as the vicious Jim Crow laws of the South which made it as difficult for a Negro to live and thrive there as it did for the Jew in pre-war Third Reich Germany. Yet, the film was basically not political in theme.

It deals with a small black college in Texas,Wiley,that had a poet plus a political agitator played by Denzel Washington as many students' mentor. Denzel, knowing that if given the chance, a few gifted students could form a debating team to challenge any college team in the nation and he sets out to prove it. Keep in mind that the main theme of the Civil Rights Movement was "if given the chance" and so the film builds on it and does the kind of damage to opponents as did the great "Brown Bomber," Joe Louis.

Although a bit slow moving and at times, pretentious, the film was very skillfully done in bringing to light the efforts accomplished by the African Americans to do away with the perniciousness having pervaded this nation from the time the first slave ship landed on our shores. Without delving into the ultra-political, nevertheless we are made to see for ourselves how prophetic became the words "We can overcome".

Who wrote, "And the youth shall guide them?" Truer words never written. Those Wiley College kids, without anything but minds for weapons, caused a revolution from the mid '30s to the present--kids who put real meaning into the Emancipation Proclamation.

19 of 24 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

Message Boards

Recent Posts
Anyone else notice a slightly Communist/Socialist slant to the film? g_wales
These are the kind of black movies... Ozyre Cekda
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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