The Great Debaters: The Power of Words

Written by Riccardo Armeni


Cover of the movie The Great Debaters[2]

The Great Debaters is a 2007 American movie, based upon a 1997 article for the magazine American Legacy, which focuses on African-American history and culture. The film was written by Robert Eisele and directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars in the picture as debate coach Melvin B. Tolson. The cast is complemented by a wide array of notable performers, including actors of the caliber of John Heard, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker and Forest Whitaker[1].


Based on a true story, the movie tells the story of Melvin B. Tolson, a debate coach at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and his attempt to place the debate team on an equal playing field with other schools. Marshall was defined by James Farmer Jr. (one of the debate team members) as “the last city to surrender after the Civil War”[3], and Wiley College has always been a historically ‘black’ college[4], being part of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Southern U.S., and the laws in place at the time were enforcing racial segregation, including putting African-American citizens at risk of lynching. The plot of the movie revolves around the Wiley College debate team’s run towards the national championship, and the struggles they had to face during the journey.

Plot of the movie

The events of the movie take place at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in the 1930s. Professor Melvin B. Tolson is accurately screening a preliminary pool of 360 students in order to eventually select 4 individuals: Samantha Booke, Hamilton Burgess, James Farmer Jr. and Henry Lowe. Booke (first woman to ever participate in the endeavor) and Farmer Jr. (son of the famous James Farmer) were the back-ups, whereas Lowe and Burgess were the starters for the team. Both Lowe and Farmer Jr. develop feelings for Booke, who only reciprocates the sentiment for the former, leaving the barely 14-year-old Farmer Jr. in dismay. Besides these romantic dynamics, socio-cultural themes are also widely explored throughout the movie, including the ensuing Great Depression as well as the abuses suffered by the African-American community on a daily basis[5].

The team starts practicing: professor Tolson has the occasion to showcase his knowledge when involved in one of the debates with his students, citing among others Willy Lynch, a military officer and slave-owner during the Civil War whose name is said to have been the origin for the term lynching. The first challenge for the debate team is against Paul Quinn College, another historically ‘black’ university located in Dallas, Texas. By quoting the famous saying by Tacito ‘ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant[6] (they create desolation and call it peace), Lowe takes home the first win for the team.

The team continues with its positive streak, until they face University of Oklahoma; at this point, Burgess decides to leave the team in fear of retaliation and Booke substitutes him in her first official debate ever. She references Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, as well as sergeant Crocker (the last soldier to be murdered in the Civil War), with all them being heroes in the African-American community and gets the win for Wiley College.

Samantha Booke, portrayed by Jurnee Smollett, during the Oklahoma debate[7]

Eventually, the team gets to face the reigning champions, Harvard University, and manages to win thanks to the argument by the youngest member of the group, Farmer Jr. His closing statement is a paraphrase of St. Augustine “un unjust law is no law at all”; this is a recurring exchange between the Farmer characters (both father and son)[8].


As the events depicted in the movie take place over 70 years before its release (and almost 90 years from today), there has been much change and evolution on the matter. As a consequence, little information is known about its protagonists. James Farmer Jr. went on to become a civil rights leader and one of the most prominent figures in the African-American community and established the Congress of Racial Equality, serving as its first director for a brief period precedent to World War II[9].

“‘Un unjust law is no law at all’, which means I have a right, even a duty, to resist – with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I chose the latter”

James Farmer Jr. quoting Saint Augustine during the championship debate[10]

 On the other hand, some of the names in the movie are not historically accurate: for example, the character of Samantha Booke was loosely based on Henrietta Bell Wells; similarly, the reigning champions, identified as students of Harvard university, were actually members of the University of Southern California. On that note, the debate team from Wiley College was never actually declared champion as African-American individuals were not able to be full members of the debate society until after the Second World War[11].

Moreover, the movie itself generated a big cultural impact: the release of the motion picture coincided with a national effort to establish debate programs in troubled schools that struggled with financing or those located within inner-cities. In addition, the director of the movie, Denzel Washington, donated 1,000,000 dollars to Wiley College in order to reinstate their debate team[12].

FUN FACT: the movie was directed by Denzel Washington, and the actor that plays James Farmer Jr. was named Denzel in his honor. Also, the actor that plays Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) shares the same last name as the actor that plays his son (Denzel Whitaker); however, they are not related.

[1] For more information about the movie, see here

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Wikipedia, The Great Debaters (2007),

[5] Ibid

[6] Bonandini, A. (2021), Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Quando il latino diventa slogan,

[7] Find the picture here

[8] Wikipedia, The Great Debaters (2007),

[9] Ibid


[11] Wikipedia, The Great Debaters (2007),

[12] For more information about the movie, see here.

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