The Great Debaters

Docudrama | English | 126 minutes


At Wiley, a Southern  African American  college, debating coach Melvin B. Tolson starts to build a team that will rival nationally-ranked Harvard. Two of his star debaters are James L. Farmer, Jr. and Samantha Booke. It was a period in Texas when Jim Crow laws were common and lynch mobs operated with impunity. Tolson is determined to succeed as he drills his team in the basics. Farmer’s father confronts Tolson criticizing his methods. Wiley College finally reaches its goal of challenging Harvard.  This is what they’ve been waiting for.   Can they do it? In a postscript, it’s noted that James L. Farmer, Jr. went on to cofound the Congress of Racial Equality and Samantha  Booke (real name Henrietta Bell Wells) became an acclaimed poet. 

Denzel Washington (Melvin B. Tolson) / Forest Whitaker (James L. Farmer, Sr.) / Denzel Whitaker (James L. Farmer, Jr.) / Jurnee Smollett (Samantha Booke)
Why Stream This Film?

Although the Wiley College debating team beat the reigning national champions, they were not declared the winners. Wiley College was not a full member of the debate society because the students were African-American. This restriction was rescinded after World War II.The Great Debaters depicts a kind of racism not known by many people, even educators.

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score (Critics Consensus): 80%
  • Metacritic Score: 65
  • Golden Globe Awards: Nominated, Best Motion Picture
  • National Board of Review: Winner, Freedom of Expression Award
  • African American Film Critics Association: Winner, Best Picture
THE GREAT DEBATERS is one of the happiest surprises of the season; it’s a marvelously edifying entertainment you should not miss.
Andrew Sarris

The Observer

This is a film that’s affirming and inspiring and re-creates the stories of a remarkable team and its coach.
Roger Ebert

Terrific acting lights up this period drama directed by Denzel Washington.
Kirk Honeycutt

The Hollywood Reporter

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