The Great Debaters



Inspiring true story confronts racism head-on.
Popular with kidsParents recommend
  • Review Date: May 12, 2008
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2007
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

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."

Not applicable
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.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this inspirational fact-based drama 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.

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?


Based on a true story and produced by Oprah Winfrey, this earnest-till-it-hurts film has a lot of the characteristics of the typical "underdog" movie: personal hardship, social oppression, and resilient spirits. 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.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the appeal of movies based on true stories. What can today's viewers learn from seeing a movie like this? What messages do you think the film is hoping audiences will take away? What does this movie have in common with "underdog" sports stories? Families can also discuss how accurate they think the movie is. Why would filmmakers tweak any facts when making a movie based on a true story?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:December 24, 2007
DVD release date:May 12, 2008
Cast:Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett
Director:Denzel Washington
Studio:Weinstein Co.
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.

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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Kid, 12 years old May 1, 2014

*1 great teacher and three great debaters*

The great debaters is a great movie. The story line is about a small college for blacks. The college is located in a small town in Texas. Teaching at the college is a man named Mr. Tolson. Not only is Mr. Tolson a teacher but a coach for the debate team. The beginning of the movie Mr. Tolson has tryouts for the debate team and only four make it. These four brave debaters go on a crazy roller coaster. On this crazy ride the team looses one of the debaters but in the end the team seems to pull through. Overall I thought it was a great movie and I learned many life lessons. But to warn some parents this movie is not appropriate for kids younger than 11 or 12. :)
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 13 years old Written byBestPicture1996 November 6, 2009

One of the best movies of 2007

It looks like a real boring film just from the title and subject matter of it, but it truly is a fantastic film that shows racism the door, and proving that you can achieve anything if you put enough effort into it. Definitely not for children by any means.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Great messages
Great role models
Teen, 17 years old Written byJJT April 9, 2008


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