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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.

Director:

Denzel Washington

Writers:

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

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
Denzel Washington ... Melvin B. Tolson
Nate Parker ... Henry Lowe
Jurnee Smollett-Bell ... Samantha Booke (as Jurnee Smollett)
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 Trenton McClain Boyd ... Nathaniel Farmer
Ritchie Montgomery ... Deputy
Jackson Walker ... Pig Owner
Tim Parati ... Pig Farmer
Robert X. Golphin ... Dunbar Reed
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Storyline

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

Taglines:

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:

View content advisory »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

Release Date:

25 December 2007 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Debate Pela Liberdade See more »

Filming Locations:

USA See more »

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Box Office

Budget:

$15,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$3,604,000, 23 December 2007, Wide Release

Gross USA:

$30,226,144, 13 April 2008
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

DTS | SDDS | Dolby Digital

Color:

Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

The diploma hanging in Dr. James Farmer's study is an authentic copy provided to the art department by Boston University archivist Kara Jackman. See more »

Goofs

At one point, Mr. Tolson says "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." This quote was originally attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," which was written in 1963. See more »

Quotes

James Farmer Jr.: In Texas they lynch Negroes. My teammates and I saw a man strung up by his neck and set on fire. We drove through a lynch mob, pressed our faces against the floorboard. I looked at my teammates. I saw the fear in their eyes and, worse, the shame. What was this Negro's crime that he should be hung without trial in a dark forest filled with fog. Was he a thief? Was he a killer? Or just a Negro? Was he a sharecropper? A preacher? Were his children waiting up for him? And who are we to just lie ...
See more »

Connections

Referenced in Notes on Craft: Structure (2009) See more »

Soundtracks

Wiley College Fight Song
Performed by the members of The Grambling State University Marching Band
Produced by G. Marq Roswell
See more »

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User Reviews

 
Triumph ... and Treacle
10 January 2008 | by cliffs_of_fallSee all my reviews

Sometimes you can enjoy every second of a movie, every frame, and be phenomenally moved by it, and cry a happy tear … and yet, when you ponder the film afterward, you feel disappointment, a sense of "why couldn't this film have been braver?" For me, this was that kind of film. There's just no subtlety in it and situations are stock.

Best things: the design of the film, the cinematography, the casting of the primary characters, and, most importantly, the inspirational theme of debating, of speaking well as a way out and up. I hope it inspires young people of all races to clean up their bad speech habits, speak up and be heard. As the Samantha character says at one point, in wonder, "I didn't need weapons, I had words!"

Worst things: predictable plot line, the fact that the speeches themselves, while well delivered, are not always well formulated, and the deliberate decision to end with an unalloyed triumph when the actual situation was less glamorous and more poignant; other postings here have explained why. As someone pointed out, the white characters are demonized (I would say "stereotyped") and not only by cretinous pig farmers in Texas but by the young Harvard debaters whose delicate features and snooty bearing make them seem like Stepford Scions. Oh, well … black characters in films have often been stock but one must ask, if that was wrong then why is this right now?

Oprah is a soft-hearted person with an aspirational dream for her people. That's nice but it doesn't necessarily lead to great art.


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