Denzel Washington is the director and main character in the Great Debaters . Denzel is one of the most famous and highly praised actors of this time period. His impact on and off the camera is unmeasurable and is a large part of what made this movie so emotional for its viewers. Although Denzel has acted in over 40 movies and produced several more, this is only the second movie for him to direct.  Denzel was able to capture and display the struggles that black schools had to undergo to make a name for themselves. Along with being a professor, Denzel adds a twist to his character, Melvin B. Tolson , as he also has him portray himself as a sharecropper who

Denzel, Forest, Oprah - discuss The Great Debaters-0

Denzel, Forest, Oprah - discuss The Great Debaters-0

holds secretive meetings without the police knowing. Denzel, along with being an outstanding actor, has an eye for sensing what a movie needs or does not need. Since he has a long resume of previous movies that he has acted in, he conducts his work from his experience and his natural talent.

This film was nominated for the Golden Globe award but did not clinch the title. Although it did recieve the BET Award and Christopher award for its outstanding actors and screenplay.  

Section headingEdit

The Great Debaters' budget is 15 million dollars and the film made over 6 million dollars during its debut weekend.  The movie ended up making over 30 million dollars domestically. Denzel and the rest of the cast are pleased with their theatrical sales as their profits doubled their budget for the movie. Six days before the movie was released, Denzel Washington donated one million dollars to Wiley Collage so they could re-establish their debate team.  


This film has some similarities to Braveheart as Mel Gibson directed and and starred in his own film and helps the underdog prevail when no one thought it was possible. The Scottish people were being ruled by an English tyrant and William Wallace,  who is played by Mel Gibson, will do everything he can to free the Scottish people. Although it seems impossible for him to free them, in the end he sacrificed his own life for the freedom of his people.  

Melvin B. Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, exemplifies the same attitude in a different situation. He and his team are held down by racism and many thought that it was not possible for them to get national recognition. At the time, the four members on the debate team lost hope as well. Yet the team overcomes obstacles, debates at Harvard and makes an impact on the racial problems in America during that time. It was another example of the underdog fighting for freedom as in Braveheart.  

Denzel picked this movie because he was inspired about what Wiley College had accomplished and how he is an example of an African American who had succeeded. Obviously the racial discrimination did not play a major roll in his success but it is a symbol of how the equality in America has came true. Sixty years ago the idea of an African American becoming a succesful icon in American in a buisness that prodamately was run by white people was a dream to most that they knew would never come true. Today though everyman has an equal oppurtinity to succeed and Denzel is a prime example of a man who has.

The Great Debaters - Full Trailer (HD) ***New

The Great Debaters - Full Trailer (HD) ***New

Yet Mr. Tolson never lost hope. His mission was to prove that race should not be the deciding factor of whether a team will have the chance to compete in high level debates and and also to display that one does not have to be a Harvard student to succeed. Mr. Tolson also had to make a sacrifice to help his team; he was not allowed to go to the final debate because the police said he would be arrested if he left the state. He turned what the team thought to be a horrible situation into a very good teaching point as he made the team make the decision on who would debate and also had them write the debate on their own, without his assistance. Both situations required sacrifice, to put forward the greater cause that each were fighting for and this left an example to their peers of how not submit to the evil that the world presents but to fight and conquer what lies ahead. 

Section headingEdit

Wiley College became a very inspiring place during the civil rights movement as they fought against the racial discrimination in the 1930s, while Melvin B. Tolson fought to make his team on even ground with the other predominately white teams. They became very successful and were able to debate white schools and win.  They also began to gain attention from the higher ranking schools. They eventually were able to debate the top schools in the nation and win their debates.


 The Great Debaters was based off of this school’s story as they made an impact in the black community.  The events that took place at Wiley College inspired Denzel Washington to create a film displaying their story and the struggles they had to overcome. The racial hatred at the time was a blessing and a curse for the debate team. The team was not able to compete with white schools at first and was not respected by fellow debaters because of their race. This was not right and was inhumane, but also created more motivation for the team to overcome the hatred and discrimination and prove the poeple who doubted them wrong.  There is a time in the movie where the team drives up on a lynch mob on their way to a debate and they are chased away from the scene by an angry white mob and were not able to attend their debate. At the time, the event was horrible and was a very traumatizing experience for the team but it also brought them closer together. They realized how valuable life is and that in this time of racial hatred it can be taken away at any point. James Farmer Jr. uses this example in his final debate and states how they were scared for their lives hiding in the car and states that the Jim Crow Laws are not helping the racial violence and that it needs to be put to a stop. He was able to use a horrific event to raise awareness of the crimes being committed on the black people in the south and was also able to win over the audience and win the debate against a very talented Harvard debate team.

The Great Debaters Lynching Scene

The Great Debaters Lynching Scene

Scene AnalysisEdit

Debate final de la película The Great Debaters

Debate final de la película The Great Debaters


James Farmer Jr . is the youngest debater on the team and slowly but confidently steps up to the podium to give his final words in the debate. The main focus of the scene is on him with the blurred figures of the Harvard elders behind him as he speaks. When he first begins to talk there is a shot of Henry Lowe and Samantha Booke amantha Booke ,the two members of his team, reflecting on what James is saying and remembering what an awful memory it was. The scene shows his teacher looking down on him from the balcony in awe of his student and proud of what he is saying, and proud of how powerful his words are.  It also shows his fellow classmates, back in school, all gathered in a large lecture hall listening to the debate on the radio. It also cuts away to James' family as they are at home gathered around the radio, and for the first time James' father shows a slightly puzzled but proud look as he is surprised by what his son is saying. When he finished his statement, the crowd gives him a standing ovation, and he steps down and gives Samantha a hug as she has tears in her eyes.

Final debate


The scene is set in a large collegiate debate hall at Harvard.  The setting is a very standard setting for a debate yet much larger than any debate hall the team had ever seen. The auditorium was full of people.  It is a dark setting except for where James is speaking. The audience is quiet and when he does show their face they appear to be listening very closely.  This scene  occurs at the perfect moment as the team has been working all year to reach a high level debate against a talented team so they will get national recognition and they accomplish this goal. There are hundreds of people gathered and hundreds more listening through radio, but the director does not draw attention to them, excpet to show their intensity as they listen. He shows them to let the viewers know that they are present, but does not want the focus to be changed to the large crowds rather than what is being said by the debaters.


In this scene, the director is very clear that all he wants the audience to see and focus on is the speaker because this is the most important scene of the movie and he does not want anything else catching the viewers attention. It is so important because of the serious words that James is speaking about the way the black people are being mistreated.  When he cuts away from the scene, he shows those who are supporting them. For example, he shows Mrs. Booke's mother and James' family while he also shows the men in the hair parlor and their fellow students. the looks on their faces showed their surpise and repect for the things James was willing to share.  Most importantly it showed Mr. Tolson, his coach, as he looked on with awe, watching his students debate knowing he had nothing to do with it, as he could not be there and help this time. He was very pleased and proud of their performance.

Camera work

The camera work was relatively simple. It does not show the scene from the eyes of the actor but simply observes the scene as if an observer at the debate. Most of the scene the camera is a close up of only James, with nothing seen behind him while he is speaking. It does occasionally show the audience and the people important to the debate team, such as his father.  It is a slow moving scene so the pace of the scene is following the pace of his speech as they do not want to rush through it because of it's importance. This is the climax of the movie and the viewer feels the emotion as they observe the debate taking place.

Sounds and music

There are very few distracting sounds as James speaking.  As there are pauses in the speaking, the absence of sound was more effective than music. When the camera would change to other characters usually they were sitting in silence listening with great emotion and anticipation. It built up the suspense for what James had to say about his team and what they had to go through to get where they are now. 

Interview with James Farmer

Interview with James Farmer

When James Farmer Jr. graduated, he went on to become a major leader in the civil rights movement, and by 1961 he was working for the [[1]] and a was elected as the leader of [[2]] as the civil rights movement began to gain power. At the time, the interstate buses were still segregated and he was approached with the idea to attempt to de-segregate the buses and this was called [freedom rides] . The rides were to take place on May 4, 1961, starting from Washington and moving throughout the south and finishing in New Orleans. Though many of the rides ended in violence, James played an important role in taking a stand against the racial discrimination in the south.

By 1963 [troopers] were going door to door trying to organize enough people to start a protest to bring his contributions to the civil rights movement to a stop. As he was being hunted by the state troopers, 

a funeral home director let him play dead in the back of a hearse and he was carried out of town. Sadly, he was later arrested in August with charges of disturbing the peace.

Farmer was referred to being a part of the ["big four"] of the Civil Rights Movement but he began to grow distant with the CORE and other black and militant groups and decided he wanted to teach. He got a job at [University] which is a historic black college in Pennsylvania. He later ran for congress and was defeated but was offered a position by President [Nixon] as the assistant secretary of Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He only stayed a year due to his frustration with the government and resigned. He then wrote his own biography in 1985 and lived the rest of his life in Virginia and later died due to complications with diabetes in 1999.

In the Land of Jim Crow Growing Up Segregated (clip)

In the Land of Jim Crow Growing Up Segregated (clip)

During the time that the Wiley College debate team was going country wide with their debates the [Crow Laws ] were in affect that lasted from 1876-1965 and mandated racial segregation in public facilities in the southern states. The laws applied for schools, public buildings, transportation, restrooms and drinking fountains, and the military was also segregated. This was demonstrated in the movie when the team had to turn back from a debate dud to a lynch mob attempting to attack them so they could not stop at a hotel. Mr. Tolson knew a friend who would house them  and they stayed the night because a hotel would not accept them.

The[Civil Rights Act of 1875] introduced by [Sumner] and [F. Butler] attempted to state that everyone should receive the same treatment and accommodations in public places, regardless of what they look like or where they are from. The act was not successful and the supreme court in 1883 ruled it as unconstitutional in some respects though most of congress was filled with white southern democrats.


Due to the limitations and danger of blacks living in the south in the first half of the [century ], many blacks moved up to northern cities where the lynchings and Jim Crow Laws were not in effect. They did so to seek better chances to forming a new life without the fear of dying, due to their race. During this time, the black communities began to produce many [[3]] bands and musicians and created their own music that coincided with their own lives and were able to tell their story through music. The racial fight was also in sports as athletes faced much discrimination and were often excluded from organized sporting events even if they were able to compete at the same skill level as the white players.

The Wiley College debaters, by traveling the country and making a name for themselves,and by beating top ranked debate teams were a small subtle step in defeating the racial discrimination. They displayed that they were just as capable as white schools to produce a good debate and showed that everyone is equal, no matter what color they are or where they are from. Most of the students were scared to take this step but Mr. Tolson pushed them to take that step and as James Farmer Jr. as an example, led to bigger and better things with their lives.     


"Denzel Washington." IMDb., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"The Great Debaters." IMDb., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Nate Parker." IMDb., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Jurnee Smollett-Bell." IMDb., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Richard M. Nixon." The White House. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013. Facilities, Toilet. National Parks Service. National Parks Service, 20 Apr. 2013. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Latest News." Latest News. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013."

James L. Farmer, Jr." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Home Page." Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013."NAACP | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People." NAACP | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Jim Crow Laws." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Harvard, Howard University Debate Teams to Battle in DC - Howard University Newsroom." Harvard, Howard University Debate Teams to Battle in DC - Howard University Newsroom. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013. "Discover Wiley." Wiley College. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"The Freedom Rides." The Freedom Rides. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Charles Sumner." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 02 May 2013.

"Benjamin Franklin Butler (politician)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 May 2013.