In 1935, real-life educator Melvin B. Tolson created quite a name for himself by assembling an award-winning debate team at Wiley College, one of the oldest Black colleges in the nation. When he wasn't leading and motivating students, Tolson also created a bit of a stir with his radical politics. The Great Debaters chronicles this chapter in the life of a fascinating man—and in the life of a racially divided nation.
In the opening scenes, we see stern theologian James Farmer, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) welcoming the freshman class of 1935 to Wiley, a small Methodist college located in Marshall, Texas—the heart of the segregated South. Later this first day of class, Tolson (Denzel Washington) introduces his students to the words of emerging revolutionary Black writers—and announces the debate team tryouts at his house that night.
The tryouts draw 45 students, vying for four positions. Intelligent-but-brooding Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) makes the team, along with returning member Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams). The team is rounded out by alternates Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only female to try out, and James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the 14-year-old son of the college president.
Tolson employs unrelenting and unconventional methods to train his team, which pay off in victory after victory in debates with other Black colleges throughout the country. Unbeknownst to his students, Tolson writes to several white universities to try to secure an unprecedented debate with one of them; his ultimate dream is a long-shot debate with Harvard.
Also unbeknownst to his students and even to his family, Tolson spends his evenings trying to help unionize the local sharecroppers and farmers, a mixed-race partnership ...