Denzel Washington Shines in The Great Debater

A biographical drama that teaches as well as entertains

Shefali O'Hara
5 min readFeb 27, 2022


Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

I just finished watching The Great Debaters, an American film that came out in 2007. I decided to watch it because it stars Denzel Washington, and was a rare movie starring him that I’d never seen before. The first movie I saw starring him was Mississippi Masala, where he was young and gorgeous. Yes, I crushed on him, but I also loved the history lesson it gave me. I’m a sucker for films like that, that have some historical context.

In the case of The Great Debaters, the movie is actually a biographical drama. While there is some artistic license, which is to be expected in any Hollywood production, the basic facts remain.

The film itself was based on an article written about the Wiley College debate team and its 1935 victory against the University of Southern California, the national debate champions. Some artistic license was taken.

For example, the part of Samantha Booke was based on Henrietta Bell Wells, who was actually the first member of the Wiley College team. During her tenure at the historically black Texas college, Ms. Wells’ team beat Tuskegee and Howard University, two of the most prestigious such universities. They also made history by engaging in the first college debate between white and black students when they debated University of Michigan.

The later victory over the USC debate team was made even more amazing given that the Wiley College debate team was only founded in 1924 by Melvin B. Tolson, who taught English and other subjects and who earned distinction as a poet.

There were other places in which artistic license was taken. However, the main points of the film are firmly grounded in reality, and the deviations from the true story contributed to these.

For example, the characters, portrayed by a amazing cast, are not paper saints. They are not perfect and this depth of character makes the movie more relatable and engrossing. It also makes the very real racism that occurred in Jim Crow era Texas seem more palpably evil, as it showed just how few choices black people had back then.



Shefali O'Hara

Cancer survivor, writer, engineer. BSEE from MIT, MSEE, and MA in history. Love nature, animals, books, art, and interesting discussions.