The Great Debaters
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 Great Debaters|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Denzel Washington|
|Edited by||Hughes Winborne|
|Distributed by||The Weinstein Company
|Box office||$30.2 million|
The film co-stars Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Gina Ravera, Jermaine Williams and Jurnee Smollett. The screenplay was written by Robert Eisele. 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, 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. 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.
- Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson
- Forest Whitaker as James L. Farmer, Sr.
- Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest) 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 film was the first since 1979 to be allowed to film on Harvard's campus.
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 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 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 32 reviews.
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."
- 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:
- "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 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. 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 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 June 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
- "The Great Debaters – Official Site". Thegreatdebatersmovie.com. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- Phillip, Abby D. (2007-07-23). "The Harvard Crimson :: News :: New Denzel Flick Films In Sanders". Thecrimson.com. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- Take Action
- "National Association for the Urban Debate Leagues". Naudl.org. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- "The Great Debaters – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-01-20.
- "Great Debaters, The (2007): Reviews". Metacritic. 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.
- "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}
- Soundtrack Listing on IMDB
- "Denzel Washington Hand Picks Songs for New Film" – The Insider
- "The Great Debaters (Soundtrack)" on Amazon.com
- Beil, Laura (2007-12-05). "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival". NYTimes. Retrieved 2007-12-05.
- "The Great Debater's". Roger Ebert. 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2008-06-29.
- "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival." New York Times, December 5, 2007.
- Scherman, Tony (Spring 1997). "The Great Debaters" (PDF). American Legacy. 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.