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The Great Debaters

MPAA Rating: PG-13-Rating (MPAA) for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality

Reviewed by: Saundra Gordon

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens, Adults
Drama, History
2 hr. 3 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
December 25, 2007 (wide); DVD: May 13, 2008
Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

What are the consequences of racial prejudice and false beliefs about the origin of races? Answer

Racism, Racial Issues and Christianity
Get biblical answers to racial hot-topics. Where did the races come from? How did skin color come about? Why is it important to have a biblical foundation for such issues?
Featuring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Kimberly Elise, Jurnee Smollett, Jermaine Williams, Gina Ravera, Bonnie Johnson, Robert Malitsky, See all »
Director: Denzel Washington
Producer: Molly Allen, Todd Black, David Crockett, Kate Forte, Joe Roth, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

“When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope.”

Here’s what the distributor says about their film: “Inspired by a true story, ‘The Great Debaters’ chronicles the journey of Professor Melvin Tolson, a brilliant but volatile debate team coach who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small African American college in the deep south into a historically elite debate team. A controversial figure, Professor Tolson challenged the social mores of the time and was under constant fire for his unconventional and ferocious teaching methods as well as his radical political views.”

The fact that this movie is based on a true story gives it merit and credibility. It depicts very graphically the struggles African Americans went through in order to be recognized as valid contenders for a college debate team.

Denzil Washington and Forrest Whitaker are excellent, as were all the actors.

Although it shows a redeeming ending, the graphic violence throughout much of the movie might be depressing, even for some adults. There was also some sensuality in the movie.

I recommend the film for older teens through adults.

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Mild

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer Comments
Comments below:
Positive—I was very moved by this film. It was very well done delivered a powerful message. Denzel is awesome as always. There are a couple of scenes, like a man burned and hanging and a raid with violent, that could be touchy with younger children. With older kids it could be a wonderful teaching point and a great way to encourage compassion for what African Americans have had to endure. There is one brief scene where a man and women sleep together and are not married. Despite this scene, I would still recommend this movie. Overall, I think this is an excellent film and would encourage its support.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4½
E.S., age 48
Positive—What a powerful film! Probably the best film I’ve seen this year! This movie is directed by and stars Denzel Washington but the real stars of the film are the students that he inspires to compete (and win) on a debate team. As was said, the scene of a lynching was upsetting but in light of the setting of the film it was understandable that it be included. Please see this as a family; it will definitely open up areas of discussion.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4½
Reba, age 40+
Positive—This movie is definitely a message movie, intended to inspire hope and thought. I personally wish it had not resorted to a rather large historical inaccuracy, namely, that this debate team from a small black college won over Harvard. Actually it bested the University of Southern California. Nevertheless, the movie has good achievements in directing and acting by the enthusiastic and talented Denzel Washington and the fresh faces that perform the major roles, not to mention the brilliant performance by the always splendid Forest Whitaker, playing a deeply spiritual and intellectually gifted minister. John Heard also appears, playing with great effect a sinister sheriff whose whiny voice with a sadistic edge to it helped create the hideous world of the racist South during the Depression. There are sobering scenes of lynching, racial violence, and sexual immorality and carousing. However, the thrust of the story is the courageous and inspiring effort by the debating students to achieve intellectual victory despite great odds.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4½
Positive—My husband, father and I just went to this film and we all loved it. We plan to take our 14 year old and perhaps also our 12 year old to the movie too. This story about the power of words, our history of racial injustice and its scars is very well done. While the movie has a strong Christian preacher character, the movie does not develop his role or faith in the development of these young people. Rather, education is held up as the saving influence. There is an unfortunate brief sex scene between two young, unmarried characters. Drinking and cavorting with women is shown to be a helpless antidote to the poison of race in society while inner strength and the power of a well articulated argument offer hope.

We found the way various characters dealt with the racism they encountered was thought provoking. The father-son relationship as well as the boy without parents brought about a lot of discussion. Take your whole family to this movie and have a great discussion about it over dinner!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
Jackie Sargent, age 34
Comments from young people
Positive—I went to see this film because of the subject: debating. I am involved in a Christian youth policy-debate league, and I wanted to see what the film’s take on debating was. The film, however, is not really about debating, but rather about racial issues. I very much liked the movie, a bit long, but still very good. But as with any film that focuses on racial issues, there is bound to be some immorality along the lines of crude racial slurs, lack of respect for African-Americans, and even a scene revealing a recently-lynched black man. Besides that, otherwise coarse language is used, and a very brief scene with sexual activity is seen; there is nothing graphic, but it is still obvious. It’s PG-13 rating is deserved. But I was very much moved by the film, and it really took me back into the times. I was never alive then, but I felt it was a accurate dipiction of the racial issue (as well as debating!). Bottom line: give it a shot. Except for the elements mentioned above, it was a clean film that was packed with meaning.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
Roger Gelwicks, age 16
Negative—I didn’t like “The Great Debaters” one bit. It was supposed to inspire me, but that’s hard to do when racism is the main theme, so all Debaters did was depress me. I was personally interested in the movie, because I am involved in competitive debate, so I thought I’d be able to relate to the characters. I found that the movie was more about racism then anything else, and the filmmakers pushed the PG-13 rating to ugly limits, including a wrenchingly horrific lynching scene.

The most offensive content is the sexuality. Henry is shown in three sexual encounters. The first shows him running his hand up a married woman’s thigh. Then he beats up her husband. The second one is by far the most explicit. Henry and his female teammate share a quick kiss on a lake, but soon kissing isn’t enough for them, and they promptly end up in naked in bed, albeit covered by sheets. Although the scene is shown from a distance, and we don’t see any nudity, it’s still far too explicit to be in the film, especially since it doesn’t add anything to the story.

The third sexual encounter involving Henry shows him getting out of a woman’s car and kissing her passionately as she wraps her leg around him, implying that the two had earlier had some sexual encounter.

Violence usually isn’t a damper for me, but the ugly portrayals of violent racism in this movie made me feel sick. Denzel Washington and his debate team come up on a lynching mob, all grouped around a recently lynched black man. The corpse is seen from behind, and it is very disturbing and sickening. After they make it to safety, Henry pushes James onto a bed and angrily describes lynching techniques, one of which is castration. Another black man is later brutalized by the local police, and we see the aftermath.

If there is any violence that upsets me, it’s racist violence. If there’s anything more important in the filmmaking industry than a well-made film, it’s a well-made film that the audience will want to see again. “The Great Debaters” was a well-made film. It had a good story (if a little depressing), it had strong themes of courage and strength in the face of unspeakable cruelty and hatred, it was very well-acted, and it had a good conclusion.

It is hard to say why I dislike the movie as much as I did aside from the sexual content, but perhaps it is because, above all else, it was a movie about racism and the abuses that came with it, and those are the kinds of movies you don’t necessarily want to see again and again, especially when it’s a predominant theme. It’s one thing to watch the Joker stab a gangster in the eye with a pencil in “The Dark Knight,” “V” stylishly slice and cut his way through countless corrupt cops in “V for Vendetta,” and Travis Bickle blast his way through a sleazy brothel in “Taxi Driver.” It’s another thing completely to watch a lynch mob extracting all their murderous cruelty on a defenseless black man, and while we don’t necessarily see the lynching, we see the aftermath, which leaves nothing to the imagination.

It’s just too much to watch that kind of violence, and so I doubt I’ll will not be watching “The Great Debaters” again, but I will continue to watch and enjoy those other movies, because while they’re no doubt violent, they certainly aren’t disgusting.

See “The Great Debaters,” if you must, but my advice is to skip it completely and watch other, far better depressing movies, because I promise you, they’re out there. And thank goodness they’re not all about racism.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3½
Joseph Hughey, age 17 (USA)
Movie Critics
…‘The Great Debaters’ doles out idealism. It shamelessly glamorizes education, perseverance and the beauty of the human intellect, and it reminds us that the path to equality and justice doesn’t run through MTV.
Paul Asay, Plugged In
…Though ‘The Great Debaters’ (produced by Oprah Winfrey) is filled with hope and inspiration, it is marred by historical inaccuracies and a marked imbalance in its racial portrayals. …
Lisa Rice, Crosswalk
…one of the best-crafted movies of 2007. …a very emotional and powerful story… The violence is intense, especially a lynching scene. There is also some heavy drinking and sexual immorality…
…All roles are well-played… But the film’s revelation is young Denzel Whitaker, a presence who lights up the screen…
Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International
…If I were a debater arguing the negative, I’d say ‘The Great Debaters’ is a story of intellectual rigor that relies too much on emotional persuasion. But the heck with that—there’s so much to like in Denzel Washington’s new movie, it’s easier to accentuate the positive. …
Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News
…‘The Great Debaters’ wins despite its predictability… an enjoyable, rousing film…
Claudia Puig, USA Today