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


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 related to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (now The United Methodist Church), 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 fear for blacks. The Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University. (In 1935, the Wiley College debate team defeated the reigning national debate champion, the University of Southern California, depicted as Harvard University in The Great Debaters).

The movie explores social constructs in Texas during the Great Depression, from day-to-day insults African Americans endured to lynching. Also depicted is James Farmer (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 the Congress of Racial Equality). Another character on the team, Samantha Booke, is based on the real individual Henrietta Bell Wells, acclaimed poet and the only female member of the 1930 Wiley team who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the US.

The key line of dialogue, used several times, is a famous paraphrase of theologian St. Augustine of Hippo: An unjust law is no law at all , which would later be the central thesis of Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr. 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 notes

The film depicts the Wiley Debate team beating Harvard College in the 1930s. The real Wiley team instead defeated the University of Southern California, who at the time were the reigning debating champions. Though they beat the reigning champions, Wiley was not allowed to officially call themselves champions, because they were not full members of the debate society; black people were not admitted until after World War II.


  • Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson
  • Forest Whitaker as James L. Farmer Sr.
  • Denzel Whitaker 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


The Great Debaters was released in theaters on December 25, 2007.

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.

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.

Home media

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.

The film was the first since 1979 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 site s 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 reviews from 32 critics.

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.

Motion picture-historian Leonard Maltin, however, hailed the movie as Inspiring…plays with the facts but, despite its at-times-formulaic storytelling, shows us how education and determination can help ordinary people surmount even the most formidable obstacles.


  • Won: Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
  • Won: Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture: Denzel Washington
  • Won: Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture: Jurnee Smollett
  • Won: Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker
  • Won: Stanley Kramer Award
  • Nominated: Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Nominated: Image Award for Outstanding Director in a Motion Picture: Denzel Washington
  • Nominated: Golden Reel Award for Best Music Sound Editing in a Feature Film


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:

Year 2007
ReleaseDate 2007-12-25
RuntimeMins 126
RuntimeStr 2h 6min
Plot 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.
Awards Awards, 10 wins & 10 nominations
Directors Denzel Washington
Writers Robert Eisele, Jeffrey Porro, Tony Scherman
Stars Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise
Produced by Molly Allen,Todd Black,David Crockett,Kate Forte,Melody Fowler,Joe Roth,Valerie Scoon,Bob Weinstein,Harvey Weinstein,Oprah Winfrey
Music by Peter Golub,James Newton Howard
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot
Film Editing by John Breinholt,Hughes Winborne
Casting By Denise Chamian
Production Design by David J. Bomba
Art Direction by John R. Jensen
Set Decoration by Patrick Cassidy
Costume Design by Sharen Davis
Makeup Department Belinda Anderson,Matiki Anoff,Kristen Barry,Howard Berger,Anneliese Boise,Andrea Bowman,Jack Bricker,Nikki I Brown,Elizabeth Cecchini,Larry M. Cherry,Cheryl Daniels,Carl Fullerton,Valerie Gladstone-Appel,LaToya Henderson,Janice Hudson,Linda Lazar,Greg Nicotero,Gary Pawlowski,Denise Pugh-Ruiz,Joanna Raskin,Kellie Robinson,Joe Rossi,Khanh Trance,Kenneth Walker,Crystal Woodford,Andrea Young
Production Management Valerie Bleth Sharp,Kelly Carmichael,Tim Clawson,David Crockett,Carla Gardini,Michael Jackman,Eileen Malyszko Lee,Jeff Maynard,Tracy McGrath,Brian McNulty,Jeff Valeri
Second Unit Director or Assistant Director George Bott,Natalie S. Clunis,Greg Hale,Kali R. Harrison,Jono Oliver,Eric Yellin,Tommy Martin
Art Department Dean Allison,Genny Bamburg,John Bankson,Sean Bernard,C. Alan Berry,Robert Bowden,Dillon Jim Breithaupt,Helen Britten,Kathy Brunswick,Ed Burcham,Andrew M. Casbon III,Scott Childers,Tom Christopher,Diane Davis,Derek Devers,Kevin Fleming,Scott Forster,Patrick Fuhrman,Shellie Gillespie,Susanna Glattly,Chad Harris,Jerry G. Henery,Phillip Joffrion,Joey Kent,Andree Lago,Steve Laks,Elizabeth Mire,Larry Misselhorn,Ryan Misselhorn,Mike Monckton,John W. Morgan,Deborah Norris Jensen,William Nutt,Cory Parker,James Passanante,Adele Plauche,Virle S. Reid,Sonda L. Rowland,Tommy Samona,Rob Simons,Floyd B. Sterling,Gary Damian Thomas,Gordon Thomas,Azhriaz Vanashta,Chris M. Wilson,Jason Wilson,Paul Wilson,Eric Wolfe,Keith Abel,Cecile Aymami,Adam D. Bouchard,Gail Briant,Debbie Cutler,Jennifer Engel,Joey Gbur,J.D. Jacoby,Jason Glenn Jimes,Lindanne Lewis,Rebecca McKibben,Ryan McPeake,Eric Orr,Adam Roffman,Christopher Sawtelle,John N. Wood
Sound Department Kami Asgar,Richard Branca,Stacy Brownrigg,Willie D. Burton,Anita Cannella,Dorian Cheah,Michael Dressel,Kim Drummond,Thom ‘Coach’ Ehle,Scott G.G. Haller,Steven Huerstel,Kevin Jette,Amy Kane,Jonathan Klein,Rick Kline,Tateum Kohut,Howard London,John Marquis,Herwig Maurer,Julianne McCormack,Sean McCormack,Erin Oakley,Greg Orloff,Fred Peck III,Eryne Prine,Elizabeth Rainey,Jacob Riehle,Carmine Rubino,Brian Smith,Gary A. Theard,Tim Tuchrello,Jon Wakeham,Mark Agostino,Shawn Harper,Jarrett Simon,Jared Watt
Special Effects by Chris Cera,Jeff Edwards,Joe Giles,Brian Goehring,Steve Hartman,Grady Holder,Carey Jones,James Leonard,Jack Lynch,Tony Matijevich,Christina Prestia,Caleb Schneider,Andy Schoneberg,Shannon Shea,Lino Stavole,A.J. Venuto,David Wogh,Jeffery D. Woodrel,Javier Zepeda,Bob Trevino
Visual Effects by Ryan Laney,Brian McNulty,Thomas Mathai
Stunts Austin Anderson,T.D. Antoine,Kevin Beard,Bobby Beckles,Gregg Brazzel,Lex D. Geddings,Thirl Haston,Jim Henry,Jack Little,Eric Norris,Stephen A. Pope,Robert Powell,Steven Ritzi,Russell Towery,Guss Williams,Joe Nin Williams
Camera and Electrical Department Phillip Abeyta,Tarik Naim Alherimi,James Babineaux,Bob Bates,Stephen Beasley,Patrick Bensimmon,Giovanni Bommarito,Bryan Booth,Xiomara Comrie,Scott D. Davis,John Gregory Edwards,Eric Engler,Jack English,Donny Fowler,Dan Furst,Jose ‘Flecha’ Hernandez,Darryl Humber,Gary Kelso,Mark La Bonge,David Lee,Sean J. O’Shea,Myron Parran,Frank Parrish,Simone Perusse,C. Alan Rawlins,Kerry Rawlins,Pamela Rittelmeyer,Jacob Ross,Edwin Rubio,Ted Sapp,Gina Scagnelli,Riko Schatke,Jed Seus,Tiffani L. Stephenson,Stephen Thorp,Gary Tolbert,Tedd Underwood,Jeremy Webre,Rick Cardillo,Mark J. Casey,Robert Clark,Sean Cruz,Tim Driscoll,Dru Dunnaway,Kevin Gazdik,Eric Goddard,Gonzalo Gonzalez,Paul Goroff,Guy Holt,Dan Hutchinson,Brent Swampy Mullins,Robert Owen,T.J. Sebren,Randy Tharpe,Todd Thompson,Steven J. Winslow
Casting Department Natalie Ballesteros,Kate Carlin,Angela Demo,Christopher Gray,Christian Juneau,Tracy Kilpatrick,Brent Paxton,Carolyn Pickman,Selisa Sirls,Lamar Williams,Matt Bouldry,Marisa Kushner,Aileen McCall
Costume and Wardrobe Department Yvonne Bastidos,Darek Beeman,Lauren Bott,Toby Bronson,Rendell Bryce,Megan Coates,Renee Dodson,Andree Fortier,Bobbie Frankel,Julia Gombert,Mitzi Haralson,Dana Kay Hart,Frances Jacques-LeCompte,Shannon Jantz,Anaya Kellogg,Krystle Lamoreaux,Kenneth Lecompte,Gayle Merindino,Max Newman,Meriwether Nichols,Frank Perry Rose,Riki Lin Sabusawa,Felipe Sanchez,Amanda Simonelli,Giselle Spence,Liz Staub,Jodie Stern,Susan Thomas,Rachel A. Walker,Helen Wilson,Diah Wymont,Rosa J. Colón,Fran Cox,Hillary Derby,Rebecca Hofherr,Alanna Keenan,Chris Love,Alyson MacInnis,Marienne O’Brien,Roric Ruegsegger,Ellen Ryba,Paul St. John,Jessica L. Therrien,Brittany Trusler,Danny Vick,Taryn Walsh
Editorial Department Geraud Brisson,Pete Conlin,Ian Crockett,Roland Eisinger,Mo Henry,Jonathan Hoffman,Curtis Lindersmith,Yvan Lucas,Allan Marasco,Christian Prejza,Tom Reiser,Lee Wimer,Marcel Wolthers,Scott Freeman,Brian George
Location Management Alex Borys,Karen Brady,Christina DeCharles,Robert M. Donaldson,Raine Hall,Charles Harrington,Jeff N. Maclean,Phillip Messinger,Steve Oare,Kei Rowan-Young,Joshua Youman,Joshua D. Clark,David Margulis,Christopher Plummer,Karen Stark
Music Department Chris Bacon,Maya Beiser,Christine Bergren,Mark Berrow,Billy Rivers & The Angelic Voices of Faith,Richard Bissill,Thomas Bowes,Hugh Burns,Chris Cozens,Peter Davies,Eddie Delena,Geoff Foster,Matt Franko,Grambling State University Band,Gavin Greenaway,Isobel Griffiths,Stephen Hayes,Dave Holden,Joel Iwataki,Todd Kasow,Charles Lacy,Rachel Levy,Christopher Lord,Steve Mair,Charlotte Matthews,Barbara McDermott,Everton Nelson,Julia Marie Newmann,Larry Pannell,John Parricelli,Victor Pesavento,Jeff Powell,Roger Rhodes,G. Marq Roswell,Jonathan Snowden,Pamela J. Sollie,Adam Swart,Stuart Michael Thomas,Greg Vines,Allen Walley,Rosemary Warren-Green,Bruce White,Wiley College Choir,Oscar Zambrano,Warren Zielinski,Rachel Bolt,Brad Dechter,ELEW,Paul S. Henning,Sean Stolper,Stuart Michael Thomas
Script and Continuity Department Karen Golden
Transportation Department Bobby Anderson,Annette Ansley,Johnny B. Antwine,David Balsley,Richard Benavidez,Adrian Cannon,Bret Carroll,Richard A. Davis,John DeVay,James C. Donahue,Juan Echavarria,Monte Emery,Phil K. Frost,David Glavin,John Gregorio,Joseph M. Hancock,Gerald Hardy,Daniel Hines,Robert Jepson,Richard Lengle,Jorge Loredo,Kim Magruder,Wende Martin,Lori Maxwell,Dale Moser,Ted Moser,Justin Nance,William O’Brien,Eugene Purcell,Beverly Reeves,Gavin Roberson,Bob ‘Smitty’ Smith,Timothy Stephens,Jorge Vasquez,DeAnna Weippert,Bill West,Hank Van Apeldoorn
Additional Crew Danny ‘Dano’ Anderson,Natalia Anderson,Nicole Anderson,Jackie Bazan,Stephanetta Bingley,Jenna Block,Rob Brown,Unjoo Lee Byars,Alison Cannon,Antravian D. Carter,Shaun Cobbs,Christine Coggins,Mona Coulter,Ian Crockett,Gino Crognale,Michael Deak,Alex Diaz,Kenneth Donaldson,Brooke Estrada,Gino Falla,Anna Fuson,Kevin Gaspard,Dianne Grigsby,Hodge Grigsby,Chad Hahne,Jason Halley,Lisa Halliday,Terry L. Harris,Brendan Harvey,Dan Haygood,David Heffler,David Hickey,Whitney Hicks,Leah Holmes,Jamie Horwitz,Nancy G. James,Nicki Johnson,Mindy Jones,Laine R. Kline,Ashley Kravitz,Teresa Jolene Lee,Ronald J. Levin,Daryll Manning,Greg Nicotero,Nannette Palmer,Katrina Parsons,Cory Patt,Brent Paxton,Rita Pearson,Tammy Peck,Patrick Tendai Pfupajena,Erik Proveaux,Jason Quimby,Allan Rafael,Michael Reilly,Alajahwon Ridgeway,Edgar Robles,Dirk Rogers,Antonio Caetano Santos,Phil Scalisi,Bruce Schluter,Anne Scott,Mark Sharon,Frederick Shear,George Sholley,Scott Stein,Stream,Brian Stuart,Cid Swank,Jules Sylvester,Shannon Thompson,Jeff Valeri,Andria Warren,Ricky R. Weaver,Arthur Welch,Meredith Wieck,Delano Wilson,Lois Yaroshefsky,Shaun Aponik,Barbara Babb,Ann Bennett,Richard E. Carter II,Brooke Coleman,Derek Cunningham,Ramses del Hierro,Catherine Feeny,Paul Huber,James L. Jensen,Mark Killian,Brooke Lehman,Jeffery Mannarini,Victoria Marie,Meghan Maro,Robin Maxkii,Matthew D. Miller,Carter Mitchell,J.P. Ouellette,Bill Parris,Colby E. Peterson,Cali Pomes,Kim Quam,Gregory M. Smith,Mimi Watstein,John West
Thanks Thomas Freeman,Clarice P. Lowe,J. Marie McCleary,Melvin B. Tolson Jr.,Henrietta Wells
Genres Biography, Drama, Romance
Companies Harpo Films, Marshall Production, Roth Films
Countries USA
Languages English
ContentRating PG-13
ImDbRating 7.5
ImDbRatingVotes 59053
MetacriticRating 65
Keywords student,debate,debate team,professor,black american