The Great Debaters

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The Great Debaters
Great debaters post.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Denzel Washington
Produced by Oprah Winfrey
Joe Roth
Todd Black
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Written by Jeffrey Porro
Robert Eisele
Starring Denzel Washington
Forest Whitaker
Nate Parker
Jurnee Smollett
Denzel Whitaker
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Edited by Hughes Winborne
Production
  company
Harpo Productions
Distributed by The Weinstein Company
(Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Release date(s)
  • December 25, 2007 (2007-12-25)
Running time 126 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million
Box office $30,236,407

The Great Debaters is a 2007 American biopic period drama film directed by and starring Denzel Washington 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.[1]

The film co-stars Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, Gina Ravera, Jermaine Williams and Jurnee Smollett. The screenplay was written by Robert Eisele. The film was released in theaters on December 25, 2007.[2]

Plot[edit]

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. This was their 47th annual debate team.

The movie also explores the social constructs in 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. (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 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. Wells also happened to be a minor 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: "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. and James L. Farmer, Jr. characters.

Historical background

The film depicts the Wiley Debate team beating Harvard College in the 1930s. They did not debate Harvard, however. The debate depicted in the film instead mirrored 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.[3] 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."[4]

The 1930 Wiley College debate team in Marshall, Texas. Henrietta Bell Wells, front row, center. Melvin B. Tolson, front row, second from left.

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.[5]

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

The film was the first since 1979 to be allowed to film on Harvard's campus.[6]

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[edit]

Box office[edit]

The Great Debaters debuted at No. 11 in its first weekend with a total of $6,006,180 from 1,171 venues. The film has grossed domestically $30,236,407, surpassing its budget of $15 million.

Critical response[edit]

Critics gave the film generally favorable reviews. As of November 20, 2012 the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a score of 79% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 131 reviews.[7] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 65 out of 100, based on 32 reviews.[8]

Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer named it the 5th best film of 2007[9] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times named it the 9th best film of 2007.[10]

Some critics have criticized the film for "playing it safe."[7] 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."[7]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Awards
Nominations

Urban debate leagues[edit]

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.[12][13] Cities of focus included Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Denzel Washington's donation[edit]

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 Mr. Washington donated $10,000.00 to Central High School.

Home media[edit]

DVD release[edit]

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.

Soundtrack and score[edit]

The songs for the soundtrack to the film were hand-picked by Denzel Washington from over 1000 candidates.[14] 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.[15] It features favorites, such as "Step It Up and Go," "Nobody's Fault But Mine," and the Duke Ellington classic, "Delta Serenade."[16] The complete soundtrack album includes the following songs:[17]

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. "Begrüssung" – Marian Anderson

Varèse Sarabande released a separate album of the film's score, composed by James Newton Howard and Peter Golub.

  1. Wiley College (1:01)
  2. Meet Me After Class (2:34)
  3. Who’s Next? (3:37)
  4. Choosing The Team (1:07)
  5. Give Me The Check (2:24)
  6. Who’s Your Opponent? (1:00)
  7. Union Meeting (5:42)
  8. Sheriff Tightens His Grip (3:56)
  9. Quinn Debate (2:39)
  10. Burgess Quits (1:18)
  11. Oklahoma Debate (4:04)
  12. Tolson Arrested (1:56)
  13. Lynching (3:09)
  14. Lowe Returns Drunk (1:31)
  15. Never Going To Forget (1:27)
  16. James’ Failure (2:19)
  17. Letter From Harvard (1:15)
  18. Train to Boston (2:24)
  19. Empty Debate Hall (1:10)
  20. Satyagraha (2:37)
  21. Who’s The Judge? (2:59)
  22. Memorial Hall (1:14)
  23. James’ Speech (2:14)
  24. And The Winner Is... (3:28)

References[edit]

  1. ^ BlackNews.com – 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[dead link]
  2. ^ "The Great Debaters – Official Site". Thegreatdebatersmovie.com. Retrieved 2012-10-12. 
  3. ^ Beil, Laura (2007-12-05). "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival". NYTimes. Retrieved 2007-12-05. 
  4. ^ "The Great Debater's". Roger Ebert. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-06-29. 
  5. ^ "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival." New York Times, December 5, 2007.
  6. ^ Phillip, Abby D. (2007-07-23). "The Harvard Crimson :: News :: New Denzel Flick Films In Sanders". Thecrimson.com. Retrieved 2012-10-12. 
  7. ^ a b c "The Great Debaters – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-01-20. 
  8. ^ "Great Debaters, The (2007): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  9. ^ "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2008-01-02. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  10. ^ Roger Ebert (2007-12-20). "The year's ten Best films and other shenanigans". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  11. ^ "HOLLYWOOD FOREIGN PRESS ASSOCIATION 2008 GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS FOR THE YEAR ENDED DECEMBER 31, 2007". goldenglobes.org. 2007-12-13. Archived from the original on 2007-12-15. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  12. ^ Take Action
  13. ^ "National Association for the Urban Debate Leagues". Naudl.org. Retrieved 2012-10-12. 
  14. ^ "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" – The Insider}
  15. ^ Soundtrack Listing on IMDB
  16. ^ "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" – The Insider
  17. ^ "The Great Debaters (Soundtrack)" on Amazon.com

External links[edit]