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

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.

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 Collegemarker 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 Universitymarker.

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." Melvin B. Tolson also happens to be a major African American poet whose papers are housed at the Library of Congressmarker.

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

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 Californiamarker, who at the time were the reigning debating champions. Wiley College did indeed win this matchup. 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."

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.



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

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. Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 65 out of 100, based on 32 reviews.

Carrie Rickey of the 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.

Many 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."

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. 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 Collegemarker so they could re-establish their debate team.

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 a Audio commentarycommentary, 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. 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." The complete soundtrack album includes the following songs:

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. 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." New York Times, December 5, 2007.
  6. The Harvard Crimson :: News :: New Denzel Flick Films In Sanders
  7. The Great Debaters Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes
  8. Take Action
  9. National Association for the Urban Debate Leagues
  10. "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" - The Insider}
  11. Soundtrack Listing on IMDB
  12. "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" - The Insider
  13. "The Great Debaters (Soundtrack)" on

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