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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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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?
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?
- In theaters: December 24, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: May 12, 2008
- Cast: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett
- Director: Denzel Washington
- 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: September 21, 2019
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