Generally favorable reviews - based on 32 Critics

Critic score distribution:
  1. Positive: 24 out of 32
  2. Negative: 0 out of 32
Watch On
  1. 100
    This is a film that is affirming and inspiring and re-creates the stories of a remarkable team and its coach.
  2. 88
    Ultimately an uplifting movie because it is about triumph.
  3. A triumph. Unapologetically old-school, in both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the term, Debaters overlays the story of social underdogs onto the familiar template of the stand-and-deliver saga, the staple of sports inspirationals like "Rocky," "Invincible" and "The Karate Kid."
  4. The three young actors are good, but the movie is held together from beginning to end by another riveting performance from Washington. Few actors can dominate a film with their diction as well as Washington, and the role of the erudite, passionate Mel Tolson gives him plenty of opportunity.
  5. The Great Debaters is like one of those sentimentally revved youth-sports-team crowd-pleasers. This time, though, the sport is debating, and the setting is an elite black college in Marshall, Tex., in 1935
  6. Good story, well told. Interesting concept. I wonder if people will go for it.
  7. Eisele and Washington lacked faith in their material. So they've made the big debate opponent not USC but Harvard, a more clear-cut epitome of the white world of privilege that has to face the hard truths of racial equality.
  8. 75
    For a film about the power of speech, it's the quiet moments of rapture that say everything.
  9. An edifying and forthright drama that aims to create a lump in the throat, and succeeds.
  10. Succeeds in bringing a lump to the throat without, as is de rigueur these days, insulting our intelligence.
  11. If I had to pick one word to describe The Great Debaters, it would be "nutritious."
  12. Reviewed by: David Ansen
    Wouldn't it have been more fascinating if, just once, they had to argue, as all debate teams must, against their own beliefs? That would have really tested these amazing kids' mettle--and the movie's too.
  13. Reviewed by: Todd McCarthy
    Tailor-made for maximum inspirational, historical and educational impact, The Great Debaters shines a bright spotlight on a remarkable example of black achievement long forgotten in the sorry history of the Jim Crow South.
  14. An earnest drama about the search for self-esteem and sense of responsibility among young black people that successfully relies on its fine actors.
  15. Because it is so old-school Hollywood, with a weakness for standard moments and pat situations, The Great Debaters initially comes off as easily dismissible. Largely saving it from that fate is the presence and ability of Denzel Washington, who costars with Forest Whitaker and directs from Robert Eisele's script.
  16. Mr. Washington is splendid, as always. So is Forest Whitaker as James Farmer, Sr.
  17. It's a great family movie, if not historically perfect, and something that a lot of people are going to like.
  18. Conceived like a sports movie, this delivers passion, nuance, and historical insight along with unnecessary hokum.
  19. Reviewed by: Richard Schickel
    The film may be manipulative in its construction, and cliché-ridden in some of the incidents it recounts, but it has a good, large heart.
  20. Not the most thrilling of competition films. There are only two short debate scenes, and each time the team gets to argue (in sound bites of rhetoric) the politically correct side of the issue.
  21. 67
    Even when you're disappointed with the film's predictability, there's something invigorating about the way it embraces literacy and argument.
  22. Reviewed by: Glenn Kenny
    While The Great Debaters' intentions don't lead it to movie hell, this picture is far more diffuse, commonplace, and predictable than the surprisingly convincing "Fisher."
  23. Reviewed by: Claudia Puig
    An enjoyable, rousing film, despite its formulaic quality.
  24. 63
    There's an air of extreme predictability and inevitability in the script - which takes liberties like moving the climactic debate from the University of Southern California to the grander precincts of Harvard.
  25. The wonder is that The Great Debaters transcends its own simplifying and manipulative ploys; it radiates nobility of spirit.
  26. 60
    About midway through Denzel Washington's new film The Great Debaters comes a raw and terrifying scene that exemplifies why the movie's worth seeing, despite its hackneyed and awkward story.
  27. 58
    Too bad the story is all over the place. One second, it focuses on a love triangle between students; the next, it's about Washington's efforts to unionize the local farmers.
  28. Reviewed by: Nick Pinkerton
    The film avoids potentially interesting frictions by always letting the team debate (and win) on the "correct" side of every issue--that which aligns with generally accepted modern liberal sympathies. The kids follow their party line all the way to the big game, a ridiculous, fallacy-riddled face-off against Harvard.
  29. The film is hobbled by the narrative predictability that inevitably governs this type of drama.
  30. 50
    The Great Debaters keeps things on the surface and pushes the obvious buttons, hoping you won't notice its distinct lack of depth.
  31. All of this unfolds with such predictability, the title might as well be The Great Foregone Conclusion.
  32. Reviewed by: Ken Fox
    Polished, pokey and cloyingly formulaic, Denzel Washington's directing follow-up to "Antwone Fisher" is a Harpo -- as in Oprah spelled backwards -- Production all the way.
User Score

Generally favorable reviews- based on 53 Ratings

User score distribution:
  1. Positive: 19 out of 21
  2. Mixed: 0 out of 21
  3. Negative: 2 out of 21
  1. Sep 12, 2014
    We’re in the middle of the 1930’s. The great depression, the rasism flows in the south, black people get lynched without having any protectionWe’re in the middle of the 1930’s. The great depression, the rasism flows in the south, black people get lynched without having any protection by the law. The black fighter James Braddock has recently defeated the white, mighty Max Baer which 70 years later results in the movie Cinderella Man. Denzel Washington is about to do the same thing as the director of Cinderella Man: he takes on a true story of the eventful 1930’s. The movie is called ’’The Great Debaters’’ and it’s about a black debate team in Texas. Lead by the engaged and strong-willed english teacher Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), this personality-strong debate team starts to experience success no one could even imagine. The movie is well made, rich on details and tells us about an interesting time-period which contributes to the success within an already proven genre.

    At the time of the action American Universities were still race-regulated and the black Wiley College in Texas had a successful debate team. The purpose with this debate team is to travel and meet other debaters from others schools in a form of a contest in rhetorics and argumentative techniques. Mr. Tolson, the teacher, handpicks a little group of smart students to represent the school. He declares, quite frankly, that he chooses this team for best possible balance: Two ordinary debaters, one researcher and one substitute. Henry Love, a drinking buffoon which is strongly intelligent. Hamilton Burgees, a fat superb debater. Samantha Booke, the substitute and the only female debater in the movie in all matters. James Farmer Jr., the extremely talented researcher, a boy who’s four years younger than everyone else in the group.

    During Tolsons capable leadership and strongly pathos based arguments, this debate team starts to win. First against other black colleges and eventually they start winning against white universities. Their winning streak grows and in the end they get the privilege to debate against the reigning champions, the famous Harvard University. The road to get there was long and lined by troubles, sprung from the intolerant social society and Mr. Tolsons radical personality and what he does on his free time.

    I would lie if I didn’t say that this movie is one of those ‘’win against all odds’’ kind of movies. But it’s not only that, it’s something much more. It’s a movie based on a true story which depicts the hectic relationships between the black and the white society, where the protagonists are exposed to rasism and even lynchings. The movie also touches questions about love, nurture and gender during a time where people had a really conversative view against these phenomenons.

    It can seem hard to do debates, where the questions and responses already have been assigned, thrilling in a movie - but that’s something that the director has thought about. The debate scenes are kept short and have one bad peculiarity: our Wiley team always draws for the ’’good side’’ which makes the movie so political correct. It would have been intriguing to see the Wiley team debate against something that represents themselves.

    The joint between The Great Debaters and the movie Cinderella Man as mentioned earlier, is many. The composure is similar and the narrative in both movies is something extraordinary. Both movies unfolds during the eventful 1930’s and shows us about the large racial differences, the inequality between men and women and the money crisis during that time. The largest dividing points are that The Great Debaters also showed us about the big differences in the school system at that time.

    Washington really knows how to control the genre of serious drama. The composure is flawless but predictable. The writers did bring all the actual events into the movie, added some fictitious scenes and places the scenes is the perfect order to make a good movie. The slow beginning of the movie has the ability to capture us, much thanks to Denzel’s authority. The controversy comes somewhere in the middle of the movie and follows by a brilliant second half. The recess comes during the second half of the movie and it’s what makes the movie so great. The final argument we hear in the last debate , strongly based on events that happened during the movie, still rings in that crammed Harvard courtroom. Not necessarily peaceful and humble, but strong. Perhaps even radically.

    Based on a true story, the director and writers have made a unique and capturing narrative. The story about Wiley College is something I take with me every time I think about, write or discuss anything about racial differences or the 1930’s. The final argument made by James Farmer Jr. still gives me goosebumps and is probably one of the best ending scenes I’ve ever seen. Denzel Washington, have with this movie, proved to the film industry and the audience that he can do more than just acting.
    Full Review »
  2. Feb 22, 2013
    The Great Debaters is another inspirational tale of the oppressed, but unlike most, this film has the distinction of being pretty close toThe Great Debaters is another inspirational tale of the oppressed, but unlike most, this film has the distinction of being pretty close to historically accurate. I was hesitant to see this film, because who wants to watch a film about a debate team? Denzel Washington, however, happens to be one of my favorite actors, so I gave it a shot and learned quite a bit. The debate team was just an instrument, and was comprised of four people who would all go on to play significant roles in the Civil Rights Movement. The films follows award winning author, Melvin Tolson (Washington), on his journey to create the best African-American College debate team in the country, a team that would eventually go on to challenge the debate team at Harvard University. Everything about this movie was extremely powerful and well done. From the language to the graphic imagery to the story and the performances I was completely blown away by this film. I went into it thinking, if it's bad I'll turn if off after a half-hour. Now, I'm thinking about watching it again tomorrow. This is the way historical films should be done, The Great Debaters was fair, accurate, and just a great film! Full Review »
  3. JayH.
    Mar 15, 2008
    Inspiring, disturbing, engrossing and well-told. This is a movie that will long be remembered as it made a deep impression on someone far Inspiring, disturbing, engrossing and well-told. This is a movie that will long be remembered as it made a deep impression on someone far removed from the setting of the story. Full Review »