The Great Debaters
|The Great Debaters|
|Directed by||Denzel Washington|
|Screenplay by||Robert Eisele|
|Edited by||Hughes Winborne|
The Weinstein Company
|Box office||$30.2 million|
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 (no relation), 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 fictional Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University.
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 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 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." 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.
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; blacks 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Track listing
- "My Soul is a Witness" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & Sharon Jones
- "That's What My Baby Likes" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart & Teenie Hodges
- "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You" – The Carolina Chocolate Drops & Alvin "Youngblood" Hart
- "Step It Up and Go" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & Teenie Hodges
- "It's Tight Like That" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart & Teenie Hodges
- "Busy Bootin'" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
- "City of Refuge" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
- "Two Wings" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
- "Delta Serenade" – David Berger & The Sultans of Swing
- "Rock n' Rye" – David Berger & The Sultans of Swing
- "Wild About That Thing" – Sharon Jones, Alvin Youngblood Hart, & Teenie Hodges
- "Nobody's Fault but Mine" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart & The Carolina Chocolate Drops
- "How Long Before I Change My Clothes" – Alvin "Youngblood" Hart
- "We Shall Not Be Moved" – Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
- "Up Above My Head" – Sharon Jones w/Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith
- "The Shout" – Art Tatum
- "Begrüssung" – Marian Anderson
- "The Great Debaters". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2016-05-12.
- "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". Archived from the original on June 30, 2008.
- "The Great Debaters – Official Site". Thegreatdebatersmovie.com. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- 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.
- "The Great Debater's". Roger Ebert. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-06-29.
- "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival." The New York Times, December 5, 2007.
- "thegreatdebaters.org - thegreatdebaters Resources and Information". Thegreatdebaters.org. Archived from the original on December 11, 2007. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
- "National Association for the Urban Debate Leagues". Naudl.org. Archived from the original on 2012-10-26. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- "'Debaters' college gets $1-million gift". Los Angeles Times. December 20, 2007.
- "The Great Debaters – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-01-20.
- "Great Debaters, The (2007): Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
- "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2008-01-02. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
- Roger Ebert (2007-12-20). "The year's ten Best films and other shenanigans". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
- "The Great Debaters Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes". Rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- [dead link]
- Maltin's TV, Movie, & Video Guide
- "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.
- ""Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" – The Insider".
- "The Great Debaters (2007)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
- "The Great Debaters (Soundtrack)" on Amazon.com
- Scherman, Tony (Spring 1997). "The Great Debaters" (PDF). American Legacy. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-07. Original article about Melvin Tolson's Wiley College debate team.
- Bell, Gail K. (December 2007). "Tolson, Farmer intertwined by Wiley debate team". Marshall News Messenger. Archived from the original on 6 June 2009. Another very detailed article on the team and the film.
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