The Great Debaters: Wikis


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The Great Debaters

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Denzel Washington
Produced by Oprah Winfrey
Joe Roth
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Written by Jeffrey Porro
Robert Eisele
Starring Denzel Washington
Forest Whitaker
Nate Parker
Denzel Whitaker
Jurnee Smollett
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Editing by Hughes Winborne
Studio Harpo Productions
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The Weinstein Company
Release date(s) December 25, 2007
Running time 126 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million
Gross revenue $30,236,407

The Great Debaters is a 2007 American biopic period drama film directed by and starring two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington[1] and produced by Oprah Winfrey and her production company, Harpo Productions. It is based on an article written about the Wiley College debate team by Tony Scherman for the 1997 Spring issue of American Legacy.[2].

The film co-stars Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, Gina Ravera, and Jurnee Smollett. The screenplay was written by Robert Eisele. The film was released in theaters on December 25, 2007.[1]

The film was rated PG-13 for "depiction of strong thematic elements including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality".



Based on a true story, the plot revolves around the efforts of debate coach Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) at historically black Wiley College 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 pervasive fear for blacks. In the movie, the Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University.

The movie also explores the social milieu of Texas during the Great Depression including not only the day-to-day insults and slights African Americans endured, but also a lynching. Also depicted is James L. Farmer, Jr. who, at 14 years old (Denzel Whitaker), was on Wiley's debate team after completing high school (and who later went on to co-found C.O.R.E., the Congress of Racial Equality). According to the Houston Chronicle, another character depicted on the team, Samantha Booke, is based on the real individual Henrietta Bell Wells, "the only female member of the 1930 debate team from Wiley College who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States."[3] Melvin B. Tolson also happens to be a major African American poet whose papers are housed at the Library of Congress.

The key line of dialogue, used several times, is a famous paraphrase of Augustine of Hippo (354-430): "An unjust law is no law at all."[4]

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. or by James L. Farmer, Jr. characters.

Historical background

The film depicts the Wiley Debate team beating Harvard College in the 1930s. This meeting actually never occurred. The debate most likely similar to the one depicted by the movie was the match up between Wiley and the University of Southern California, who at the time were the reigning debating champions. Wiley College did indeed win this matchup.[5] According to Robert Eisele: "In that era, there was much at stake when a black college debated any white school, particularly one with the stature of Harvard. We used Harvard to demonstrate the heights they achieved."[6]

The film omits another reality: even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they were not truly considered to belong to the debate society; blacks were not admitted until after World War II.[7]



The film was the first since 1979 to be allowed to film on Harvard's campus.[8]

It is also the first film to feature two African Americans who had previously won the Academy Award for Best Actor: Denzel Washington (for Training Day) and Forest Whitaker (for The Last King of Scotland).

Release and reception


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 has grossed domestically $30,236,407 surpassing its budget of $15 million.


Critics gave the film generally favorable reviews. As of June 14, 2008, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 80% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 122 reviews.[9] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 65 out of 100, based on 32 reviews.[10]

Carrie Rickey of the The Philadelphia Inquirer named it the 5th best film of 2007[11] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times named it the 9th best film of 2007.[12]

Many critics have criticized the film for "playing it safe."[9] 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."[9]

Awards and nominations


Urban debate leagues

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.[14][15] Cities of focus included Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Denzel Washington's donation

On December 19, 2007, Denzel Washington announced a $1 million donation to Wiley College so they could re-establish their debate team.[16]

Home media

DVD release

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 songs for the soundtrack to the film were hand-picked by Denzel Washington from over 1000 candidates.[17] 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.[18] It features favorites, such as "Step It Up and Go," "Nobody's Fault But Mine," and the Duke Ellington classic, "Delta Serenade."[19] The complete soundtrack album includes the following songs:[20]

Track listing
  1. "My Soul is a Witness" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart & Sharon Jones
  2. "That's What My Baby Likes" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart & Teenie Hodges
  3. "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You" – The Carolina Chocolate Drops & Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart
  4. "Step It Up and Go" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart & Teenie Hodges
  5. "It's Tight Like That" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart & Teenie Hodges
  6. "Busy Bootin'" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
  7. "City of Refuge" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
  8. "Two Wings" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart, Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
  9. "Delta Serenade" – David Berger & The Sultans of Swing
  10. "Rock n' Rye" – David Berger & The Sultans of Swing
  11. "Wild About That Thing" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart, & Teenie Hodges
  12. "Nobody's Fault But Mine" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
  13. "How Long Before I Change My Clothes" – Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart
  14. "We Shall Not Be Moved" – Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
  15. "Up Above My Head" – Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
  16. "The Shout" – Art Tatum
  17. "Begrussung" – Marian Anderson


  1. ^ a b The Great Debaters - Official Site
  2. ^ - American Legacy Magazine's Story The Great Debaters Turns from Pages to the Big Screen Directed By and Starring Denzel Washington and Produced By Oprah Winfrey
  3. ^ "Great Debater Overcame Odds to Bust Barriers." Houston Chronicle, December 22, 2007. Ms. Wells died February 27, 2008. According to the March 12, 2008, New York Times obituary, Ms. Wells, who was then 95, advised Denzel Washington during filming.
  4. ^ Natural Law [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
  5. ^ "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival". NYTimes. 2007-12-05. Retrieved 2007-12-05. 
  6. ^ "The Great Debaters". Roger Ebert. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-06-29. 
  7. ^ "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival." New York Times, December 5, 2007.
  8. ^ The Harvard Crimson :: News :: New Denzel Flick Films In Sanders
  9. ^ a b c "The Great Debaters - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-01-20. 
  10. ^ "Great Debaters, The (2007): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  11. ^ "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  12. ^ Roger Ebert (2007-12-20). "The year's ten Best films and other shenanigans". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  14. ^ Take Action
  15. ^ National Association for the Urban Debate Leagues
  16. ^ "Washington gives $1M to Wiley College". 
  17. ^ "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" - The Insider}
  18. ^ Soundtrack Listing on IMDB
  19. ^ "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" - The Insider
  20. ^ "The Great Debaters (Soundtrack)" on

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Great Debaters is a 2007 film about the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Texas who, in 1935, inspired students to form the school's first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.

Directed by Denzel Washington. Written by Robert Eisele.
When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope.


James L. Farmer Jr.

  • We do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do.
  • 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 there and do nothing. No matter what he did, the mob was the criminal. But the law did nothing. Just left us wondering, "Why?" My opponent says nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. But there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow south. Not when Negroes are denied housing. Turned away from schools, hospitals. And not when we are lynched. St Augustine said, "An unjust law in no law at all.' Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.

Samantha Booke

  • The state is currently spending five times more for the education for a white child than it is fitting to educate a colored child. That means better textbooks for that child than for that child. I say that's a shame, but my opponent says today is not the day for whites and coloreds to go to the same college. To share the same campus. To walk into the same classroom. Well, would you kindly tell me when that day is gonna come? Is it going to come tomorrow? Is it going to come next week? In a hundred years? Never? No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!

Henry Lowe

  • A brilliant young woman I know was asked once to support her argument in favor of social welfare. She named the most powerful source imaginable: the look in a mother's face when she cannot feed her children. Can you look that hungry child in the eyes? See the blood on his feet from working barefoot in the cotton fields. Or do you ask his baby sister with her belly swollen from hunger if she cares about her daddy's work ethics?

Melvin B. Tolson

  • Anybody know who Willie Lynch was? Anybody? Raise your hand. No one? He was a vicious slave owner in the West Indies. The slave-masters in the colony of Virginia were having trouble controlling their slaves, so they sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them his methods. The word lynching came from his last name. His methods were very simple, but they were diabolical. Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind.
  • I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind.


Melvin B. Tolson: We're holding tryouts for the debate team.
Henry Lowe: You sure you want somebody like me?
Melvin B. Tolson: No. That's why you're trying out.

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

Dr. James L. Farmer, Sr.: [after Tolson is unjustly captured and imprisoned] Since you have no evidence, I suggest you let him go.
Sheriff Dozier: Are you threatening me, boy?
Dr. James L. Farmer, Sr.: No, sir. I wouldn't do that. But I cannot speak for those people outside. [points toward the riotous mob gathered outside the sheriff's office]

James L. Farmer Jr.: [opening package] Five dollars? Lowe, I got five dollars!
Henry Lowe: Yeah, I did too. It's called per diem. Want me to hold it for you?
James L. Farmer Jr.: No, not MY five dollars.
Samantha Booke: [walks into the room waving her money in the air] I got five dollars! I got five dollars!
Henry Lowe: Yeah, me too.
Samantha Booke: Well, mine is crisp.
[watches James gulp down a strawberry]
Samantha Booke: James, this is high tea, all right? We nibble, we do not DEVOUR.
James L. Farmer Jr.: How do you know?
Samantha Booke: [smiling] I don't.

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


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