The Great Debaters

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

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 7 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 30 reviews

We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

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.

Violence

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").

Sex

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).

Language

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."

Consumerism
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

Adult Written bymoviemadness February 1, 2009

Absolutely Phenomenal

The Great Debaters is without doubt one of the best movies ever made. The journey of the four young people as they confront the world is exciting and inspiring...
Adult Written byChessMandingo April 9, 2008

This is a Must See Movie...for all Ethnicities...

My header says it all. Based on a true story in a time in history our country would like to forget, understandably so. This movie has a very strong cast to incl...
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...
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 colleg...

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?

Movie details

Character Strengths

See which skills this movie can help your kid develop.

For kids who love history

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