The Great Debaters

Movie review by
Cynthia Fuchs, Common Sense Media
The Great Debaters Movie Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Inspiring true story confronts racism head-on.
  • PG-13
  • 2007
  • 123 minutes

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 7 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 29 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Themes include communication, the resilience of youthful idealism and the wisdom that comes from experience.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Debate team members are mostly determined and noble, though occasionally rebellious and raucous. Racists (including lynching party and the sheriff in Marshall) are especially villainous. Coach is complicated and smart.


A central scene shows a lynching, with a burned, hanged African-American body and white lynchers (including a white child watching, undisturbed); the African-American debate team observes in horror, then drives away afraid. Early violence includes a bar fight. A car hits a hog, leaving it bloody and dead; the white men who own it threaten the African-American driver and his family. James finds Tolson at a union meeting; white men arrive with sticks and farm tools, chasing the farmers away, and Tolson leads James to safety. Prisoner held by sheriff appears with bloody, swollen eye. Henry and James fight briefly (Henry tells him that lynchers "cut your privates off" and "skin you alive").


Henry flirts with a man's wife at a bar; women appear in close-fitting dresses, showing cleavage, sweating, and dancing suggestively. In a later scene, James watches Sam on dance floor and imagines dancing with her and her kissing him (sweetly). On a boat, Sam and Henry kiss; scene dissolves to sex in bed (romantic filtered light and close-ups). Henry kisses a girl he's picked up at a bar in front of Sam (it upsets her).


Includes several uses of "hell" and the "N" word -- the latter both by racist characters and by Tolson, who uses it repeatedly during one "lesson" directed at Henry. Drunk and upset, Henry sings a song with the chorus "Run, n---er, run."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking and drunkenness in bars (Henry is involved in these scenes). Henry, upset by the lynching, goes out drinking and comes home drunk. Tolson smokes a pipe.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Great Debaters is an inspirational fact-based drama that includes unvarnished discussions and representations of 1930s racism, including a brutal lynching scene (the victim's body is shown burned and hung). There are also a couple of fight scenes, a confrontation between rural white bullies and an African-American professor, and a scene in which a bloodied, beaten African-American prisoner has been abused by white sheriff. A sex scene is brief and romantic (no graphic images). Language includes repeated uses of "hell" and the "N" word. Some drinking and pipe-smoking.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byChief50 May 12, 2014

The great debaters

This is a great movie that presents good world views. This movie is about a black debate team that eventually has to debate Harvard. There is a graphic seen of... Continue reading
Adult Written byLowe's man January 10, 2014

much to learn

This movie does an excellent job at tackling the issue of segregation head on. The best part was at the end, when Wiley College beat Harvard when the one stude... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byBlackSheep15 February 18, 2015

Phenomenal Film

This has been my favorite film for years. The acting is top-notch, the story is true and inspiring and it's just an overall amazing film. There is a short... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byben16 May 14, 2014


this movie is one the best and most heartwarming movies that I have ever seen. it is based in the time were blacks were discriminated for there skin color. th... Continue reading

What's the story?

THE GREAT DEBATERS follows the 1935 Wiley College debate team from its modest beginnings in Marshall, Texas, to national prominence. English professor/farmers' union organizer Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington, who also directed) coaches the team, embodying worthy life lessons for both his students and his colleague, theology professor James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker), the strict father of 15-year-old team member James Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Among these lessons are his resistance to a brutally racist local sheriff (John Heard) and his determination to overcome the pervasive racism of the time. The team overcomes a number of trials -- a brief and suitably tender affair between two members, their coach's incarceration and blacklisting, some rebellious drinking, and a harrowing scene in which they witness a lynching -- and their debate topics tend to underscore broader struggles. Ultimately, they make it to a final showdown with Harvard.

Is it any good?

This earnest-till-it-hurts film has a lot of the characteristics of the typical "underdog" movie: personal hardship, social oppression, and resilient spirits. It's based on a true story and produced by Oprah Winfrey. The titular team, fortunately, features a set of wonderful young performers, including Nate Parker as Henry Lewis and the terrific Jurnee Smollett as Wiley College's first female debater, Samantha Booke. Despite its formulaic plot and overstated, string-heavy score, The Great Debaters reminds viewers of an important early moment in Civil Rights history, showcasing the resilience of youthful idealism and wisdom that comes from experience.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the appeal of movies based on true stories. What can today's viewers learn from seeing The Great Debaters? How accurate do you think the movie is? Why would filmmakers tweak any facts when making a movie based on a true story?

  • What messages do you think the film is hoping audiences will take away? What does this movie have in common with "underdog" sports stories?

  • How do the characters in The Great Debaters demonstrate communication? Why is this an important character strength?

  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-ansi-language:EN-US;mso-fareast-language:

  • EN-US;mso-bidi-language:AR-SA">Does seeing racism and prejudice portrayed in a historical setting make it any easier to watch? Why or why not?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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