The Great Debaters

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The Great Debaters
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDenzel Washington
Screenplay byRobert Eisele
Story by
  • Robert Eisele
  • Jeffrey Porro
Produced by
CinematographyPhilippe Rousselot
Edited byHughes Winborne
Music by
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The Weinstein Company
Release dates
  • December 11, 2007 (2007-12-11) (Cinerama Dome)
  • December 25, 2007 (2007-12-25) (United States)
Running time
126 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million
Box office$30.2 million[1]

The Great Debaters is a 2007 American historical drama film directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by Robert Eisele and based on a 1997 article for American Legacy by Tony Scherman. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the Wiley College debate team in 1935 Texas.[2] It stars Washington, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Gina Ravera, Jermaine Williams, and Jurnee Smollett.

The Great Debaters was released in theaters on December 25, 2007 to positive critical reception.[3]


Based on a true story, the plot revolves around the efforts of debate coach Melvin B. Tolson 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 African Americans. 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, 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.[4]

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[edit]

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.[4][5] Wiley was not allowed to officially call themselves champions, despite defeating the reigning champions, because they were not full members of the debate society; blacks were not admitted until after World War II.[6]



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.[7][8] 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.[9] June 2007, after completing filming at Central High School, Grand Cane, Louisiana, Washington donated $10,000 to Central High School.[citation needed]

Home media[edit]

The Great Debaters was released on DVD on May 13, 2008.


Box office[edit]

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.[1]

Critical response[edit]

As of November 20, 2012, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 80% of critics gave the film positive reviews based on 132 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."[10] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 65 out of 100 based on reviews from 32 critics.[11]

Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer named it the 5th best film of 2007[12] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times named it the 9th best film of 2007.[13]

Some critics have criticized the film for "playing it safe."[14] 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."[15]

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."[16]



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


  1. ^ a b "The Great Debaters". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
  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". Archived from the original on June 30, 2008.
  3. ^ "The Great Debaters – Official Site". Archived from the original on 2012-06-01. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
  4. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (2008-03-12). "Henrietta Bell Wells, a Pioneering Debater, Dies at 96". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  5. ^ "The Great Debater's". Roger Ebert. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-06-29.
  6. ^ "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival." The New York Times, December 5, 2007.
  7. ^ " – thegreatdebaters Resources and Information". Archived from the original on December 11, 2007. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  8. ^ "National Association for the Urban Debate Leagues". Archived from the original on 2012-10-26. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
  9. ^ "'Debaters' college gets $1-million gift". Los Angeles Times. December 20, 2007.
  10. ^ "The Great Debaters – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-01-20.
  11. ^ "Great Debaters, The (2007): Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
  12. ^ "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2008-01-02. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The year's ten best films and other shenanigans | Roger Ebert | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 2021-07-15.
  14. ^ "The Great Debaters Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved 2012-10-12.
  15. ^ [1] [dead link]
  16. ^ Maltin's TV, Movie, & Video Guide
  17. ^ "HOLLYWOOD FOREIGN PRESS ASSOCIATION 2008 GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS FOR THE YEAR ENDED DECEMBER 31, 2007". 2007-12-13. Archived from the original on 2007-12-15. Retrieved 2007-12-17.
  18. ^ a b ""Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" – The Insider".
  19. ^ "The Great Debaters (2007)". Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  20. ^ "The Great Debaters (Soundtrack)" on

External links[edit]