The Great Debaters (2007) Review

Based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson who was a professor at Wiley College in Texas. He inspired his students to set up the schools first debate team and really challenge not only themselves but others and leading to challenging Harvard in 1935.


This is not an easy film to watch given the time period and the racism towards Melvin B. Tolson and his students. Having to live in a world like that would push them to be even better debaters, giving them a place to really vent and get their opinions across. During the story we mainly follow James Farmer Jr who is finding everything extremely difficult to understand.

Especially when his father Dr. James Farmer Sr is embarrassed and has his money taken from him by white men. In a truly uncomfortable scene. But a very poignant moment in allowing James Jr to draw on this awful behaviour when it comes to leading the debates. He wants nothing more than to succeed and learns the hard way that anything worth fighting for is not going to be easy.

Tolson pushed the students to the limits and this certainly helps create success and the climate at Harvard is a true joy to behold. Given the rule changes they suddenly put in the place the three students must now work alone and put everything into the debate without any help at all. The best thing was they were more than ready for this challenge and the previous hard work well and truly pays off.

They became the first black group to go to Harvard to debate against them, I have to admit that I was fearing the worst for those scenes however it showed that they were actually more accepting than the white people in the town in Texas where they actually lived. Which I was not expecting at all, however the town was not really very well ran considering the stance of Sheriff Dozier, who is a lot more involved in the bad than the good and actually doing his job of upholding the law.

The Great Debaters was inspired by the American Legacy article written by Tony Scherman. Directed by Denzel Washington as well as having in star in the film shows that he had a lot of passion for this film and I think that is evident throughout. Not only in his performance but those of his younger co-stars. The stand out and scene stealing performance had to come from Denzel Whitaker who was utterly brilliant. A very strong and committed performance from the young actor really took it all to another level. I really do think he was the best in the film. Nate Parker and Jurnee Smoollett were both good as well with the three of them linking very well with Washington. Not forgetting to mention Forest Whitaker and his small yet very effective role. He really is one of those actors who can do no wrong at all. John Heard took on a rather horrible role and he was pretty good at it!

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