The Great Debaters (2007) - 2-Disc Collector's Edition

Genre(s): Biographical / Drama
Weinstein Company || PG13 - 124 minutes - $32.95 || May 13, 2008
Reviewer: Brian Oliver || Posted On: 2008-05-16

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.:: F I L M ::.
The Film

.: F E A T U R E S :.

Special Features

.:: V I D E O ::.

.:: A U D I O ::.

.:: O V E R A L L ::.
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer(s): Rober Eisele & Jeffrey Porro (story), Robert Eisele (screenplay)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, John Heard, Kimberly Elise

Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2007

Supplemental Material:
    Disc 1:
  • Deleted Scenes
  • The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective
  • 2 Music Videos
  • Theatrical Trailer

  • Disc 2:
  • The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music
  • Scoring The Great Debaters
  • Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go To Debate Camp
  • Forest Whitaker on Becoming James Farmer, Sr.
  • A New Generation of Actors
  • The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis
  • The Production Design of David J. Bomba
  • The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson

Technical Information:
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Widescreen (2.35)
  • English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1), Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Subtitles: English, Spanish

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.::THE FILM::.


“St. Augustine said, ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”

Plot Outline: ‘The Great Debaters’ is inspired by the remarkable story of Wiley College’s winning debate team of thee early 1930s. Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, ‘The Great Debaters’ chronicles the journey of the Wiley College debate team, coached by the brilliant and passionate Melvin B. Tolson (Washington). It was Tolson’s inspiration that brought these students from underdogs to victors in a time when more than the odds were against them.

The Great Debaters is Denzel Washington’s directorial follow up to 2002’s Antwone Fisher, a film I always planned on seeing but have not yet. And on the whole, The Great Debaters is a well-made film... but that’s just the problem: it could’ve been so much better. The film, produced under Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films (she served as producer), and starring not only one of the best living actors working today in Denzel Washington but also co-starring Oscar Winner Forest Whitaker. With the talent in front and behind the camera, this should have been a knockout biographical drama, instead what we get are solid performances and, save for one very emotional scene, is a fairly safe story that only barely scratches the surface of these characters and their experience during this time. Point is, this could’ve been a contender in a year when no others stepped up to the plate.

But it is so easy to pick a part a good film than it is to praise, and in spite of its flaws, The Great Debaters certainly is a worthy movie. It tells a story that I doubt 90% (if not more) of the population even knew and gives a fleeting glimpse at the times and atmosphere of the 1930s South. I’m always fascinated with American history, the good and bad, and this film gives another glimpse of an era that needs to be told and re-told. Obviously this movie is going to affect people differently. As someone of the “Anglo-Saxon” (a joke in the film) persuasion, it does not have the same emotional impact as someone in the African-American community. But that still does not negate the importance of this story either.

In regards to the movie itself, The Great Debaters features solid performances all around. Clearly Denzel Washington always gives his best every time even in his more, shall we say, less-than-average flicks. But as director Denzel Washington, he takes a back seat at times and allows the three young talents to shine. Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker make up the trio of the young debaters who take on the college elite. Interestingly, Denzel Whitaker plays Forest Whitaker’s son... and even though they have the same last name and share a striking resemblance, they are not related (he was, according to IMDb, named after Denzel Washington, however).

Much like Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker rarely turns in a poor performance. Even before his Oscar-winning role in The Last King of Scotland, he’s always had an amazing on-screen presence. I think I first noticed him as the quiet and kind man who breaks into Jodie Foster’s home in Panic Room. Of course, his career dates back much further to including Platoon (1986) as well as on a lesser level, faves like Stakeout and Species. Here, though, Forest Whitaker doesn’t have a lot to do, but his mere occurrence throughout gives the film some extra weight along with Washington.

Overall, The Great Debaters could have been a, well, great movie and on a historical level, it is, but the film didn’t quite have the impact on me as I hoped. However, it is still a very good film with some fine performances that, combined with a story that many should know about, is a worthy movie to check out.

The film co-stars John Heard as the county sheriff and Kimberly Elise as James Farmer, Sr.’s wife.


The Weinstein Company releases The Great Debaters on a “2-Disc Collector’s Edition”. It includes hours of bonus features and a behind-the-scenes booklet. All features, except for the theatrical trailer, are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Disc 1:
Deleted Scenes (4:52) – The DVD starts out with 3 short scenes that, while the performances are good, wouldn’t have added much. One scene has two of the kids coming across the sheriff outside of Tolson’s home.

The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective (23:05) – This featurette could be considered a documentary. Washington interviews the real people who lived during this period at Wiley College. They share their experiences on the debate team and what effect it had not only on them personally, but the impact it made on the race as a whole.

The disc also has

2 music videos (“That’s What My Baby Likes”, “My Soul is a Witness”), the theatrical trailer and sneak peeks at other Weinstein Company films (Grace is Gone, Cassandra’s Dream, I’m Not There and The Hunting Party).

Disc 2:

The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music (11:59)

Scoring The Great Debaters (10:44) are two featurettes that cover the musical aspects of the movie. First, “The Heritage of Music” goes through the process of getting the right music. Washington didn’t want the clichés you normally find in these historical movies set in the South. “Scoring” has interviews with composers James Newton Howard (Batman Begins) and Peter Golub (Sublime).

Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp (21:52) – Kind of self explanatory, here you have the four debaters (and Harvard debater as well) taking a course on the techniques of debate to prepare for their roles. On a personal note, you know that stat where more people have a fear of public speaking than of death? Yeah, I’m in that category. This featurette brought back memories of high school speech class...

Forest Whitaker on Becoming James Farmer, Sr. (3:58) – This featurette primarily talks about Forest Whitaker as his character, comments from those who worked with him and something from Whitaker himself.

A New Generation of Actors (9:43) – Goes through the young actors playing their roles and features more commentary from Washington, Oprah, producers and the young men and woman as they discuss why they were perfect for those roles.

The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis (5:27) and

The Production Design of David J. Bomba (8:55) takes the more technical aspects of making the picture. For “Wardrobe” goes through the various costumes needed (homeless, college students, etc). “Production Design” is kind of the same: getting the look of the 1930s right, including filming locations.

The disc also includes

The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson.



The picture isn’t anything outstanding but it does look pristine. TGD is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35 OAR). Taking place in the 1930s, the colors are noticeably more muted void of really bright colors. The overall look is very rich with lots of browns and gold-ish textures throughout.

I wasn’t really impressed with the audio, though it’s good enough for this film. The film has the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The most use your home theater will get is via the center speaker for dialogue with the occasional piece of music coming through the other speakers.


The Great Debaters is a film that is worthy of viewing for not only some excellent performances but for a story than not many know about. This is a movie I must say could have been so much better and more in-depth but given the subject and the overall quality, I have no problem recommending it.