The Great Debaters parents guide

The Great Debaters Parent Guide

Overall B+

The Great Debaters is based on a true story of Mel Tolson (Denzel Washington), a Texas professor who encourages his African-American students to believe they can take on the world. In 1935, he puts together and coaches a debate team, hoping they can compete against Harvard University in an upcoming championship.

Release date December 24, 2007

Violence C-
Sexual Content C
Profanity B
Substance Use C

Why is The Great Debaters rated PG-13? The MPAA rated The Great Debaters PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.

Run Time: 126 minutes

Official Movie Site

Parent Movie Review

Helmed by Denzil Washington under the umbrella of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, The Great Debaters exposes a forgotten slice of African American history when a small black college became the leaders in spoken word competition.

Although it is illegal to own a slave in 1935 (the time in which the movie is set), it is still certainly more than acceptable to treat a colored person worse than a farm dog—especially in deep south USA. And that is where predominantly black Wiley College is located. But Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington), a teacher at the school, is a man with a deep desire to lead his people out of the prejudiced swamps of the bayou. With a determination that only gets stronger in the face of opposition, the Professor involves himself in socially active extra-curricular pastimes, such as the tiny institution’s debate team.

Tolson begins to coach a group of dedicated oral warriors to use words as ammunition. They include Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) and15-year-old James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). Under his tutelage, the students spar against other black schools with great success. Yet claiming victory over their “equals” is not enough for the Professor who has big dreams of challenging white schools too. Even Harvard, the king of them all, is on his list. However, getting the higher and mightier universities to agree to compete against little Wiley takes a great deal of effort. In the meantime, Tolson is also wrestling with other controversial issues closer to home, like his involvement in an organization promoting the unionization and integration of black and white laborers.

The Great Debaters, perhaps best described as a somewhat nerdy version of Remember the Titans, explores the misery and intolerance African Americans were forced to endure during this period. Lynching mobs, beatings, and a very gruesome scene of a man who has been burned to death on a cross all contribute to the harrowing visual messages of this film. As well, there are detailed verbal descriptions of inflicted torture. This content may be disturbing for adult audiences and downright terrifying for children too young to appreciate the circumstances being represented.

While it might be argued the violent depictions are warranted because of the context, the same may not hold true for a sexual relationship that develops between a couple of teammates. The story takes an unnecessary detour to briefly show the two embracing and kissing in bed, followed by a scene of them waking up together the next morning.

Still, there is no debate regarding the validity of the film’s statement on racism. Mixing actual events with fictional elements and characters (Tolson and Farmer are based on real people), the movie manages to be engaging and thought provoking, even if it is sometimes predictable. However, considering the possibly disturbing and objectionable subject matter, parents may have to hold their own great debate before bringing their children to see this drama.

Directed by Denzel Washington. Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker.. Running time: 126 minutes. Theatrical release December 24, 2007. Updated

The Great Debaters
Rating & Content Info

Why is The Great Debaters rated PG-13? The Great Debaters is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.

This inspirational story of a small black college’s debate team during the 1930s provides a glimpse into African American history during the dark years of the Great Depression. Scenes of violence, torture and prejudice toward black people may be disturbing to viewers, although the film never becomes gratuitous in this area. Men are seen beating others, one man is shown with major injuries to his face, and mobs are depicted chasing men and attempting to lynch them. Perhaps the most violent moment is the explicit depiction of a burning body hung from a cross, including close-ups of the man’s legs. The corpse is also seen falling from the cross to the ground. Sexual content includes an encounter between an unmarried man and woman (embracing and kissing in bed is followed by a scene of them waking up the next morning covered only with bed sheets). Language is limited to mild profanities and a few terms of deity, however racial slurs and derogatory names for African Americans are heard many times (spoken both by blacks and whites). Characters are seen drinking alcohol, some to the point of drunkenness (one man picks a fight with another while they are inebriated). A principle character smokes a pipe.

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More parents' guide for The Great Debaters after the break...

The Great Debaters Parents' Guide

The issue of learning how to fight using non-violent methods is one of the themes raised in this film. How did debating help these students to value themselves?

This movie is based on a true story, but features a mix of historical and fictional characters (research indicates there was no woman on the initial 1935 team). What are the “tradeoffs” between historical accuracy and dramatic license? Do you think fictionalizing historical events might risk creating “urban legends” or altering people’s perceptions of historical fact? Would sticking to just the facts make for a boring movie?

For more information on the James Farmer and the Wiley College debate team, check these links from AfricanAmericans.com and The United Methodist Church.

Home Video

The most recent home video release of The Great Debaters movie is January 11, 2011. Here are some details…

The Great Debatersreleases on Blu-ray on January 11, 2011.

DVD Release Date: 13 May 2008

The Great Debaters takes to the DVD stage and delivers its message along with an audio commentary, deleted scenes, music videos, and a text/photo gallery. Featurettes on music, casting, costume design and the poetry of Melvin Tolson are also included. Audio tracks are available in Dolby Digital Stereo (English).

Related home video titles:

Denzel Washington also stars in Remember the Titans, another film about conquering racial prejudice. In Akeelah and the Bee a young African-American girl takes on the challenges of the National Spelling Bee with the help of a dedicated coach.

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