Denzel Washington inspires ‘The Great Debaters’ on Netflix

In The Great Debaters (2007), Denzel Washington takes on the true story of the champion debate team of all-black Texas university Wiley College that, in 1935, became the first black team to compete against white colleges (or, in the words of the film, the first Negro team to debate Anglo-Saxons).

It’s Washington’s second film as a director and he also stars as team coach Melvin B. Tolson with his usual sense of command and the righteous spark of committed social activist (he’s a labor organizer in his off-hours). Forest Whitaker costars as the college preacher, a scholar who is leery of Tolson’s extra-curricular activities but just as committed to social justice.

 It’s an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity that plays the debate competition like an underdog sports movie, complete with the cheering crowds celebrating each win, and the plotting of their road to victory is too neatly designed. But outside the debate halls awaits the Jim Crow South of segregation and aggressive racism, where a drive to a debate lands the team in the midst of a lynching, and Washington brings that reality into harrowing focus.

Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker (no relation for Forest), and Jermaine Williams play the college teammates and Gina Ravera, John Heard, and Kimberly Elise co-star.

It won four Image Awards from the NAACP, including outstanding motion picture.

Rated PG-13

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases feature three deleted scenes and the 23-minute featurette “The Great Debaters: An Historical Perspective,” featuring interviews with the real debaters and teachers of Wiley conducted by Denzel Washington. The “2-Disc Collector’s Edition” offers seven additional featurettes, including “Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go to Debate Camp,” a 22-minute look at the actors training with Texas debate coach Dr. Thomas Freeman in the art of spontaneous debate.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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