The Great Debaters
By Cynthia Fuchs,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Inspiring true story confronts racism head-on.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Themes include communication, the resilience of youthful idealism and the wisdom that comes from experience.
Positive Role Models
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.
Violence & Scariness
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").
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
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).
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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."
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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.
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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.
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The Great Debaters
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The great debaters
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much to learn
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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?
Does seeing racism and prejudice portrayed in a historical setting make it any easier to watch? Why or why not?
- In theaters: December 24, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: May 12, 2008
- Cast: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett
- Director: Denzel Washington
- Inclusion Information: Black directors, Black actors
- Studio: Weinstein Co.
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Communication
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.
- Last updated: May 25, 2023
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