ang . . . don't age meh!", mocks Jurnee Smollett to an interviewer during a
conversation held recently at The Four Seasons. The interviewer made the
mistake of reminding the actress who debuted in Kasi Lemmons film "Eve's Bayou"
that she had been an activist for ten years. Ms. Smollett, 21, firmly but
playfully corrected her questioner that it was "nine!" years. Her
organization Artists For A New South Africa is dedicated to fighting the scourge
of HIV/AIDS, a disease that has hit especially hard in the African nation, where
more than 35% of its population infected with the deadly virus. She
credited her experiences as an activist with helping along her performance as
Samantha Booke, a student debater at all-black Wiley College in East Texas in
1935, in Denzel Washington's second directorial effort "The Great Debaters",
which opens across North America on December 25. "I've been in public
speaking since I was twelve, and also just being in this cocoon that is my
organization, this cocoon of knowledge, I've been fortunate to be around a bunch
of people who just kind of, you know, throw a bunch of books at me, or sayings
at me, and . . . flood me with information . . . about the world in general --
America, South Africa -- or just injustices, in general. So it helped me
out a lot. No one's ever asked me that (about her activism and its affect
on her acting), and I don't talk about it a lot because it's difficult sometimes
to talk about things that are so personal to you." Smollett was just seven
years old when she lost a crew member from her television sitcom "On Our Own" to
HIV/AIDS. Even though a harrowing experience at such a tender age would
have a strong effect on a person in any situation, Ms. Smollett said that she
still had to go beyond her offscreen moments with to bring the character of Miss
Booke to life. With her insights and the way she presents herself, Jurnee
Smollett sounds as if she has been living life for longer than just two decades.
Her onscreen character Samantha possesses the same strength and confidence that
Ms. Smollett does when she speaks during this interview.
Mr. Washington's new film is as moving, stirring and passionate as his debut directing effort "Antwone Fisher" of 2002, and showcases the talents of young and rapidly rising acting stars Nate Parker (who plays the Henry Heights-inspired character Henry Lowe), and Ms. Smollett. On this day in mid-December the trio are just having lunch brought to them, and although one of the three doesn't look satisfied with what is apparently a bungled food order, the mishap hasn't done anything to dampen their spirits as they enthusiastically entertain questions about "Debaters". Denzel Whitaker, 17, who worked with Mr. Washington on the Antwone Fuqua-helmed "Training Day", described his experience on set with the actor-as-director like this: "Definitely, he was a father figure and a mentor to us . . . even in the auditions it was all about setting a comfortable and professional tone . . . it wasn't about seeing Denzel with his Oscars and coming in you know, saying, 'hey! Look at me! I'm directing you now!' . . . He was generous with his knowledge. He shared with me his acting, his directing. He also shared with me just quotes that I wrote down at home and just things that I could take on in life and apply them to everyday and help me to be a better person. For that, I'd love to thank him and Miss Pauletta (Pauletta Washington, the director's wife) of course, because they're two wonderful mentors, as well as Forest too . . . not only [is] he a great actor, but he is also a generous and humble guy."
While Mr. Whitaker (and the other two cast members assembled on this afternoon) dole out heaps of praise for the film's director, another cast member sings the praises of Denzel Whitaker in the film's production notes: "You could tell from the very first meeting that little Denzel is quite the remarkable kid. He's very astute, very intelligent. The scenes I've done with him have been right on," remarked Forest Whitaker. Also in the film's notes, Kimberly Elise, who plays young Mr. Whitaker's onscreen mother, says, "He has that sort of sensitivity where he allows himself to be vulnerable and open on camera,". Miss Elise says that she received a Mother's Day card from the teenage actor "that touched my heart."
Nate Parker offered a glimpse of his character's trajectory in "Debaters". Henry Lowe, a whip-smart, headstrong, and a trouble-maker stands up to Mr. Washington's unorthodox Tolson character, and one scene between them carries a monumental amount of power. Mr. Parker will later speak about a side of his Henry Lowe character that he reveals in a quiet moment on screen. Initially though, he said of his character that "what spoke to me was Henry Lowe's turmoil, his inner struggle. The struggle between who he was and where he wanted to be. Where he was and what society told him he needed to be . . . for black men I think it was especially difficult because very often we were terrorized -- we couldn't really try to learn to read. We couldn't eyeball a Caucasian person -- we had to call little (white) kids "sir", and "ma'am". It had to really strip your dignity and crush your sense of pride as a human being. For being so full of intellect it had to be difficult for him. So for me attacking this role, I really wanted to show those dimensions, the layer where he was black in this Jim Crow south, the layer that he was an intellect that wanted his best to absorb as much as he could to use that (intellect) as his weapons toward this injustice." Mr. Parker, like his two "Debaters" colleagues and co-stars, is far more mature than his years of age would ever suggest. He is eighteen. Of the film, Mr. Parker reveals that "one of my favorite scenes was the one I had on the boat with Samantha because it allowed me that rare moment of vulnerability for Henry Lowe." Parker contextualizes his character's existence in this moment with Samantha: "Finally a mirror turned to myself -- it was one of those moments where I said to myself, 'you know, 'who I am? Where am I from? What am I doing here? Why am I here? Am I alone?" (Mr. Parker has just asked these presumably rhetorical question in rapid-fire succession.)
By necessity actors have a level of introspection that effectuates a deeper
probe of the characters they play, and Mr. Parker eloquently distills his
character in a way that a number of actors twice his age would not be able to
articulate nearly so concisely.
Though, as intimated from the actors' comments the film hardly shies away
from the gritty and gruesome times for blacks in the South in the 1930's in the
Great Depression era, "The Great Debaters" provides an uplifting look at
leadership, evolution and adulthood, and focuses overwhelmingly on the growth of
the three debaters and the life experiences which make them stronger. Nate
Parker, who plays Henry Lowe, said, "who would have ever thought that a black
school back then would be allowed to debate a white school . . . given
that education in those times was separate and unequal, you know, it seems like
it would be a very tough battle uphill . . . to do something like that."
After reading Mr. Eisele's script and realizing that it was inspired by a true
story, Mr. Parker was "'so ashamed that my first thought was, 'this
cannot be.'" It never occurred to him, he said, to learn of the
feats of Wiley College, and that these achievements had not been taught to him
while he was in school. "It was so out of the scope of what I was
taught that I -- it was almost inconceivable. To me, I was shocked at
myself . . . not only that this happened, but that I had no idea (that it had.)"
All in all, Mr. Parker gained strength from the pain of the real-life strife of
America's uglier past time when preparing for the film, turning the knowledge of
events previously hidden from his education and curriculum and that knowledge
"inspired me to really dig into my research, to really try to shine a light on
other areas of that time . . . the other people who went through those things at
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