Talking to The Great Debaters


Some of the most powerful dramas you’ll see on the big screen are from real stories. The Great Debaters is certainly one of them.

Denzel Washington stars and debuts as director in this true-life inspired movie based on The Wiley College debate team. Denzel plays Mel Tolson, the coach of the all-black school team in 1930’s Texas; he turned a group of non-believers into the best and most respected debaters of their time – and still to this day.

The film also stars three newcomers as the team – Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker. Their performances, combined with Denzel Washington’s, makes The Great Debaters one of this year’s best films. The team went from small debates in the state of Texas to taking on the Harvard University debate team, one of the most prestigious teams in the country. Their first step was gaining the respect of their town and the next step was gaining the respect from people, who would normally not even give them the time of day.

What really turned Washington on to this story was its powerful and positive message. “For these three people, they worked hard, studied hard. I know how difficult it is to get to this position. Good roles are hard to come by, and this was a good role. I decided to do this film because this was an opportunity for some good acting. I read something that I was moved by, and it was a process.

As for directing, just getting the opportunity to do it was something Denzel found intriguing. “It intensified as it got closer to production, and the process didn’t get finished until they finally took the picture from me. I don’t look at myself as a role model. It was an opportunity, with these young people, to share an experience with them. At the same time, it was inspiring to me to work with them on this. I felt an obligation to all the people that accomplished what they accomplished.”

But the real story comes down to the three young actors who play these most important roles. Going back and researching this time period got them prepared, but shocked them more than finding out what really happened to the black men and women of that era. “Playing a real person was a lot of pressure,” says Denzel Whitaker. “I wanted to do this person justice and playing a role in a time period where African Americans weren’t accepted in society, it’s hard and it’s kind of devastating. Of course I learned about it in history books, but to actually play the character is a little different because you can relate to what your ancestors were going through and they were thrown into a situation, especially in the lynching scene or the pig farmer scene. They looked down on us or we’re sitting in a car scared for our life. We feel it as actors, and emotionally we have a sense of disturbing images. For me, it just brought me closer and helped me to understand what I learned in the history books; it’s not just text in a book anymore – I can say I lived through it.”

Jurnee said it was more about the actual events she had to get accustomed to first before event approaching the story. “As you dig deeper and deeper, you hear all the stories, first-hand accounts of what it was like to deal and live through the Jim Crow era or the Great Depression and what was it like to know that your cousin was lynched not too long ago and the government has declared a war on crime and left out lynching. It’s this crazy feeling to know how society wants to dictate to you what place you should stand, and yet you have all these emotions inside you, ‘Shouldn’t I be entitled to be free?’ And so they knew education was their ticket, and that’s the thing everyone told us. You were either a share cropper or an educated person; there was no in between. And it kind of speaks volumes to how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. It was heavy doing the research, when you digest all this stuff, it hits you heavy in the heart and it’s hard. But at the same time, it makes me proud to know I’m standing on the shoulders of people who really fought. I’m humbled by it.”

“It was a task,” added Nate. “As a black man in America in 1935 to be compromised every day. To have to say, ‘Yessah’ instead of ‘Yes sir.’ You had to dumb yourself down in fear that you may be lynched without justice. It was a task to take on that as a character. And what it did was create a time wall inside of the character. Here you have a man who is very strong–in 2007, he’s very strong–but in the period he was born, he was put in a place that if he was walking on the sidewalk and an eight-year-old caucasian boy was walking, he’d have to get off the sidewalk and walk on the street. It’s something to be said about compromising yourself every day, every single day. You could read 1000 books, but when you see a little boy, you have to say, ‘Hi, sah.’ It was just a task to take on that burden, to allow that turmoil to come out on screen; it was a great responsibility. They gave us pictures of lynches, and I lined my mirror every day to remind myself, that when I walk into that trailer what my job was. Those pictures reminded me of the velocity of that time period. These were people that without any kind of trial were killed – and no one cared. I tried to carry that in my heart; everywhere I walked, that was the chip on my shoulder. It was a responsibility for us all to tell the truth of these people so when you looked on that screen, you saw the truth.”

Debating back in the 1930s was about gaining equality. In today’s society, it’s more than just that. Jurnee’s take is the money it takes to house a prisoner versus the amount of money the government spends on educating a child. “I do a lot with the Children’s Defense Fund, and that’s one of their big things is how some states can sometimes spend two-and-a-half times more for a prisoner than they are spending to educate a pupil. So it’s kind of like by the time they’re a prisoner, what did you do to prevent that? What kind of education did you give them?”

For Nate, it’s about enrollment in college. “The ability of someone in the inner city with a 4.0 GPA to go to college versus someone from a suburban area with the same grades, and the differences of the curriculum. I have four younger sisters, and to see the differences and grades, it just blew me away. Some of these kids get straight A’s, but they still don’t get accepted because they’re not in advanced placement or their schools don’t even offer those classes. If we’re expecting the young people to one day lead this country, I think we should take a good look at the opportunities that have been placed in front of them.”

Whitaker’s view is a much more personal battle. “Right now, I’m starting to fill out my app’s for college. For me, it’s got to be the SAT’s. It’s an important test, it’s a great test. I go to a very good public school, but in order for people at my school and go to a good college, you either have to take advanced placement classes and come out of there with a 4.-something GPA. I’m working with a 3.6 right now, and I was looking at my app, and I have a very impressive application, and I do a lot of community service. But the only thing they’re going to base my test off of was my essay and my SAT’s. It’s really depressing that they’re going to judge my life on a test that I’m going to spend four hours on one day when you can look at my whole academic career in the course of 18 years and not see anything remarkable in that? I feel that’s wrong that they’re going to judge me on a four-hour piece of paper instead of my whole life.”

Washington added, “I feel it’s our responsibility as adults, as parents. The bottom line was an environment was created for these young people at Wiley College. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. One of the things that was important to me, part of this story to tell, was that this young boy thought that his father was being less than a man, or that he had to kowtow, or that he had to shrink himself when he comes up against these pig farmers. And maybe he thought that Tolson was more of a rebel and more of the sexy guy, the hipper guy. But in the 11th hour, it was his own father that got Tolson out of trouble. So it is still our responsibility as adults to create an environment, which we have not done. If you look at politics or anything else, we spend so much time on the negative, and I’m not pointing fingers, but we have to create an environment. Whatever troubles our young people have are our fault, period; I don’t care how you slice it. We created this environment, we created this world that they are born into, and it is our responsibility to try to create an environment for them to excel.”

These are just some of the messages in The Great Debaters. This amazing film opens in theaters December 25th.