The Great Debaters


The Great Debaters

Critics Consensus

A wonderful cast and top-notch script elevate The Great Debaters beyond a familiar formula for a touching, uplifting drama.



Total Count: 130


Audience Score

User Ratings: 116,767
User image

The Great Debaters Photos

Movie Info

True story of professor Melvin B. Tolson who formed a debate team at a small, African American college in the 1930s. The team went on to beat Harvard in the national debate championships.

Watch it now


Denzel Washington
as Melvin B. Tolson
Nate Parker
as Henry Lowe
Jurnee Smollett-Bell
as Samantha Booke
Denzel Whitaker
as James Farmer Jr.
Jermaine Williams
as Hamilton Burgess
Forest Whitaker
as Dr. James Farmer Sr.
Gina Ravera
as Ruth Tolson
John Heard
as Sheriff Dozier
Kimberly Elise
as Pearl Farmer
Devyn Tyler
as Helen Farmer
Trenton McClain Boyd
as Nathaniel Farmer
Jackson Walker
as Pig Owner
Tim Parati
as Pig Farmer
Robert X. Golphin
as Dunbar Reed
Justice Leak
as Harland Osbourne
Glen Powell
as Harvard Debater No. 1
Brad Watkins
as Harvard Debater No. 2
Brian Smiar
as Harvard Dean
Gordon Danniels
as Paul Quinn Debate Judge
Voltaire Rico Sterling
as Paul Quinn Debater #1
Bonnie Johnson
as Dr. Jennings
Steve Rider
as Paul Quinn Debater #2
Gordon Daniels
as Paul Quinn Debate Judge
Donny Boaz
as Oklahoma City College Debater #1
Sam Whisnant
as Oklahoma City College Debater #2
J.D. Evermore
as Captain Wainwright
Gary Mathis
as Enormous Man
Frank Ridley
as Security Guard
Jeremiah Kissel
as Radio Announcer at Harvard Debate
Jack Radosta
as White Man at Lynching
Harold Evans
as William Taylor
Southey Blanton
as White Labor Organizer
Michael Mattison
as White Sharecropper #1
Jeff Braun
as White Sharecropper #2
Milton R. Gipson
as Prairie View Professor
Marcus Lyle Brown
as Howard Debater #1
Alvin Youngblood Hart
as Juke Joint Musician #1
Dominique Flemons
as Juke Joint Musician #2
Justin Robinson
as Juke Joint Musician #3
Rhiannon Giddens
as Juke Joint Musician #4
Ahmad Powell
as Fisk Professor
Gino Crognale
as Puppeteer
Michael Deak
as Puppeteer
Alex Diaz
as Puppeteer
View All

News & Interviews for The Great Debaters

Critic Reviews for The Great Debaters

All Critics (130) | Top Critics (42)

Audience Reviews for The Great Debaters

  • Nov 08, 2011
    When it comes to the racial issues touched upon in this film, we only skim the surface, but when it comes to the art of debating, this film is more than a regular formula drama of similar subject matter. It's engrossing, well-written, inspiring, and powerfully acted all round. I would expect nothing less than stardom for Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett very soon.
    Raymond W Super Reviewer
  • Dec 27, 2010
    This movie goes to show that great actors can also be great directors. Denzel Washington plays a prominent role in this film. The script is outstanding with amazing quotes all around it. This film is about a group of African Americans students getting together to form a group of the best debaters that the college can offer. Their goal is to bring notice to the race issues. The movie is over all a good history lesson to learn how people have suffered because the color of their skin.
    Ricardo G Super Reviewer
  • Aug 27, 2010
    The great debaters are based on a true story about an all black debate team journey to the top. Over time they all white debate teams that are prejudice of the black students. The black debate team became so close that they vow that will not give in to hard times. Then soothing bad happen that torn the team part. Will they stay together or go there separated ways.
    erika b Super Reviewer
  • Aug 13, 2010
    Actors-turned-directors have an informed perspective that often lends itself to their crafting either indulgent performance pieces (Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard, Luke Wilson’s The Wendell Baker Story) or stylized story-driven vehicles (Warren Beatty’s Reds, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). Thankfully, for the sake of great filmmaking, Denzel Washington falls into this latter category, giving audiences one of the year’s most brilliant and sympathetic dramas. Building upon the promise of his excellent Antwone Fisher, Washington gives audiences a beautifully drawn period piece with his sophomore effort—and yes, it just happens to be perfectly cast and played. In this PG-13-rated Washington-directed drama, a professor at a small African-American college (Washington) uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students into a debate team. So thought-out are Washington’s aesthetics that Depression-era Texas seems to sprawl out, with all of it’s dusty whiskey tint, right at the audience’s fingertips in stunning and impeccably captured natural hues. The performances match the visuals in a synergetic tête-à-tête that awesomely brings to life the time and the place. This investment in the here and now, of course, makes the subject matter all the more tangible and timely—regardless of how ugly it becomes. Washington and Whitaker both invest a decent amount of time upon this canvas but only once do they share the same frame, rendering a one-two acting school knock-out worthy of DeNiro and Pacino’s classic Heat match-up. The final show-stopping piece gives rise to one of the most rousing audience pleasing moments in recent screen history. Bottom line: No debate here—-just good cinema.
    Jeff B Super Reviewer

The Great Debaters Quotes

News & Features